Immigrant Bengalis

Battling with Cancer
Pronoy Chatterjee

Editors' Note: The article was published in the July 2013 issue of Ananda Sangbad, a quarterly news magazine published by Ananda Mandir, Somerset, NJ. The article is reprinted here with permission of the author and the publisher.

I am lying down on a thick cushioned bed, attached to an alarm system all around. If I step down from the bed to the floor or even hang my legs from the side of the bed, the alarm will sound and a nurse will rush in. The bed can be moved up and down, and the shoulder and the leg sections can be moved separately.

I am listening to a solo flute performance by a beautiful Chinese girl on channel 13 on a modern flat screen TV on my left side; the right has multiple tubes attached to my arm. My laptop is placed comfortably on my lap, attached to a charger on the right.

I try to compose a short e-mail, but doze off and fall into a soft sleep, don’t know for how long, with my fingers placed on the keyboard. Next, I see a mumbo jumbo of letters, printed haphazardly, with my forefinger involuntarily tapping on the keyboard while I was dozing or sleeping. I delete the entire e-mail and start over to compose a fresh one, but I lose my train of thoughts. In the next thirty minutes I collect my thoughts again and rewrite the e-mail, with several interruptions for hospital routines and my frequent stomach spasms.  But I feel good that after trying for two and a half hours, I could send a short but useful message to my associates at our non-profit organization. I have a euphoric pleasure at the thought that I could write again – and that I have a laptop that is my friend, my resource, and my connection to the network of my world at large.

For almost a month now, my wife and daughter regularly visit me in turn. They keep looking at me with blank expressions on their faces, hoping me to say, “I am well, I will go home soon,” but I can’t. My whole internal body was cooked with an overdose of radiation and toxic chemicals. Yes, it was an overdose but they had signed me up to proceed, overdose or not, to follow the protocol of pancreatic cancer treatment developed at Johns Hopkins University. I keep seeing the helpless blank faces of my family gazing at me, seeking an answer to a question, “Why us?” I turn my face and look at a picture of a vase topped with white flowers hanging on the wall on my side. I don’t have the answer to “why” or “how.”

Leaving aside all these stray thoughts I now search for a path to remain active and productive. I draw energy and inspiration from my close friends, young or old, men or women, who come frequently to see me -- their old friend who has been confined to a bed with alarms attached to monitor his movement at every step and turn, like a criminal, though he is not a criminal.

 But, I am too tired to work on my laptop when I get some free time, so I hold my laptop tightly to my chest and whisper to it, “Please let me have my ability to write again, my friend. I want to write about my dreams and my life experiences.”

At night, at the pressing of an assigned calling bell, a nurse rushes to my bedside, holds my hand gingerly, supporting me to get up on my feet. She not only helps me to walk down to the bathroom but also shares her Christian beliefs that she learned from her church to give me spiritual strength. I listen to her, not interfering with my thoughts and she enjoys that.

She asks me to show the pictures of my grandchildren. I struggle to search in my computer and finally succeed at well past midnight. We laugh together seeing their playful pictures and I forget my agonies momentarily. Her help and compassion uniquely touches my heart deeply. Next day I get a new nurse and get her help and compassion in yet another unique way, but all focused to my wellbeing, physically and mentally. It’s a memorable experience in my life, which I would have missed if I had not been in the hospital for such a long time. It is as if I have an extended family at the hospital. They talk to me about their Biblical stories and I discuss with them the mystery of creation.

A few months ago, I stayed in the same hospital for ten days for a surgery and a few weeks before that in another hospital in North Jersey for an endoscopic ultrasound procedure. There, for the first time, I heard from Dr. Ben Menachem who said in a steady and sound voice, “Sorry, you have pancreatic cancer.” I looked at my son who was sitting at my side and who had been with me all along, to all the tests and consultations with a variety of doctors. I saw his jaws stiffen. I stretched my hand to hold his.

The doctor’s words, “You have cancer,” reverberated in me for days, echoing from one corner of my heart to the other. The words rang in my ears camouflaged as a verdict of death. I asked the doctor, “How many months do you think that I would live?”

No one had the answer, except the response in statistical probabilities, a technical jargon to hedge the reality, I guess.

The battle began shortly after that. A Whipple surgery by Dr. August, followed by chemotherapy by Dr. Reid, then chemo plus radiation by Dr. Jabbour, ending in chemo again for a period of six months total, at least.

The battle challenges me physically and mentally. I talk, I argue and I stress on the unpredictability of this lethal disease, pancreatic cancer, to prepare my family to face the reality of the situation, subliming their illusory denial phase. This is the most difficult battle that I have ever faced. It is difficult, but I have the support of my son who shares the burden of dealing with it in a pragmatic manner as against the rest of the family’s denial.

Then the battle renews with new vigor when I receive an overdose of simultaneous chemo and radiation treatment that chars a portion of my small intestine, creating a blockage. And that locks me to a hospital bed for this latest month-long phase of my battle with cancer.

My battle with cancer is multifaceted. It begins with the task of dealing with the psychology not only of myself, the patient, but also the patient’s family members as well as close friends. Redirecting their thinking from hopes for a quick remission (or cure) or a complete denial to the stark realities of the disease is a very difficult task. Changing life style and priorities while managing aches and pains, regimens of medicines and treatments, and making constant decisions on unpredictable parameters of the disease are the other painful aspects of this fight. But, overall the determination to win the battle in all its facets and phases is the key in getting back to a path of near-normalcy.

Sixty-one years ago, I had seen my mother fight a hard battle with cancer in Benaras, an ancient city in the northern region of India. She had cancer of the gall bladder. At that time, there were no advanced chemotherapy regimen, no radiation technology, so the doctor gave her a chance to die peacefully at home while administering morphine, as needed for pain. My father then had her on an Ayurvedic medicine, “Sarna Patpati,” a plant derivative discovered through an ancient medical technology. However, by that time her cancer had metastasized. Her body began to dry up. Her complexion turned from fair to dark, eyes turned yellow and sunk in deep holes. On the last day, suddenly she screamed for more morphine. My father gave the permission to the doctor who gave her a heavy dosage of morphine. But nothing saved her; she sat up with an immense pain in her stomach, vomited blood mixed with yellow bile fluid. Her head stooped and she slumped on the bed. She looked only once with wide-open eyes, as if searching for something, and then her pupils rolled up. My father pulled her eyelids down. It was the end of my loving mother. I was fifteen years old at the time.

That was the doctor’s definition of peaceful death at home. Was it peaceful? May be. At least she didn’t have to go through the toxic side effects of chemotherapy, nor did she get hospitalized for weeks and months for charred intestine due to an overdose of radiation.

I am going through this battle but I am not sure of the status of my war strategy. I still may have to struggle with my cancer in five years’ time, because statistically my treatment regimens may have reduced the probability for the return of the disease by only 33% -- or may be none at all. So, I must get ready to follow my mother’s foot steps within a few years from now, even though I have fought the disease through a coveted Whipple surgery that took out certain vital organs from my stomach, tainted my blood with drastic toxic chemical, charred my digestive tract and burned the skin of my palms, feet and belly with radiation overdose. What benefit did all the modern technology give me over my mother who had it sixty-one years ago and died without pre-cooking herself with toxic chemicals and radiation? Yes, I know the benefit: increasing the probability of extending my life by a small percentage - may be or may be not. Do I really need it?

My physical therapist comes every day to take me for a walk on a leash (alarm). I go around the central hub area twice and then stop at the window with a view of a long road of New Brunswick. Both sides are lined up with modern stores, and beyond the Hyatt Hotel stands a tower building, the modern headquarters of Johnson & Johnson. I remember the days when the downtown area of New Brunswick was run down – and Johnson & Johnson occupied an old Victorian style building, repaired and extended numerous times on all four sides. The executives of Johnson & Johnson threatened to move their headquarters out of New Brunswick if the municipality did not make an effort to renovate the city. Then the process of re-building New Brunswick started with the formation of New Brunswick Development Corporation, incorporating members from Johnson & Johnson staff and officials of the county and the municipality.

Hyatt came as the first investor in this re-building project and pledged to open a hotel on a property owned by Jonson & Johnson. Then a collaboration of corporations and government organizations began to form that enhanced the renovation process. New buildings for Rutgers University, new venture start-ups, and real estate investments popped up all over the town. The hospital acquired grants from several pharmaceutical companies and built a world-class teaching medical center, renamed from Middlesex Hospital to Robert Wood Johnson Memorial Hospital.

Standing at a hallway next to the window and gazing at the landscape of New Brunswick of today, I reminisce about my days at Johnson & Johnson Research, where my creativity bloomed and I saw many successes of my efforts. Life was not easy at that time and it is not easy now, but there is one difference. Back then I had the passion, imagination and enthusiasm for creativity. I have lost that dream now as the words of the doctor’s final statement still reverberates in me: “You have cancer”   

I look through the window of my hospital hallway and see the landscape of attractive architecture of the New Brunswick downtown. On the top of a building there are two gray eagles. They fly and fly in circles. The sun is bright -- and it looks like a nice warm day outside. Suddenly I feel a change in me, a desire to go out and jog. I raise both my hands, gather my palms in reverence to whom I don’t know. All turn vague. The doctor’s verdict, “You have cancer,” shatters into pieces and floats in the air -- and finally vanishes. Then I hear a whisper in my ears: “You have won the battle, you don’t have cancer, you are free to come outside and jog with me.” I throw my hands forward, hitting the glass of the window with a euphoric pleasure. I hear a big bang of sound; my physical therapist holds me tight. I laugh and whisper, “I am free. Cancer can take my body, but not my soul and my love for life. I have all, I didn’t lose anything and I won’t lose anything” Tears roll down my cheeks and I quickly wipe it with the back of my left palm, clenching my jaws hard in determination. The bell still rings in my ears, ”You have won the battle, you are free “

I will leave behind my legacy of battling with cancer. My three grandchildren, when they grow up, will ask my son, “Baba, how did our Thakurda (grandfather)  die?” My son will reply, “Because there was no vaccine for cancer in those days, he had to fight a hard battle against cancer. Now, of course, the battle against cancer is over. We use targeted stem cell-based vaccine that works like a warhead missile, chasing and attacking the cancer cells only. Now no one dies of cancer anymore; it has been eradicated from the earth”

I see that bright light is approaching but at a snail’s pace. I hear the conch-shells blowing, welcoming the vaccine that would save millions of people around the world from battling with cancer and eventually dying a few years later. I bow my head in reverence to those who dedicate their lives to developing targeted medicines through stem cell research to save people from the deadly disease. They are our hopes; they are our heroes. Let’s applaud them for their dedication to mankind.

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(Posted December 1, 2014)

Comments from MR received on Dec 4:
"I read Dr. Pronoy Chatterjee's beautifully written article with great interest. It's a wonderful piece of writing by a brave man heroically describing the state of his illness as well as his mind. I don't know how he was able to do this, but at times it appeared that he could fly out of himself as easily as he could fly back in. As a reader I appreciate his great control on his emotions for not allowing it to become overly emotional, which it had every right to be. Congratulations, Dr. Chatterjee, and get well soon."