I took this picture of my mother a week ago. She is recovering well from surgery. The surgery was one month ago. She was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer two months ago.
These two months have been rough. In addition to seeing doctors and making hospital arrangements, I travelled twice to Beijing for work. These trips were also rough – impossibly tricky negotiations, severely dry cold weather, and the worst traffic jams.
In the north, one of the worst natural disasters was played out in Japan. I have stopped counting the number of aftershocks since March 11th. I have also stopped reading news on the short and long-term devastation this earthquake-tsunami has inflicted.
Fukushima is this generation’s Chernobyl, just a lot worse. Japan is a nation of old people. In Futaba where Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is located, farmers are reluctant to leave. Against the warnings of the authorities, many return from evacuation shelters to feed their cattle, rescue their pets and spend a few precious hours in their homes.
But for the rest of the world, the level of radiation fears hit an all time high, casting a deadly pall over nearly anything Japanese, especially Japanese food. I was in Beijing when there was a mad rush for salt! There is a new wave of fear of radiation.
The last two months have been some of the most stressful in my adult life. I thought I took everything in my stride, but stress had a way of creeping up on you. This long Good Friday weekend, the weight of the past weeks is finally taking its toll. I am paralysed with fatigue. Drained emotionally.
My biggest source of stress is the thought of introducing radiation into the aged body of my mother. While everyone is trying to avoid radiation, I am asked to subject my mother to days, weeks and months of radiation.
Post surgery treatment for thyroid cancer includes 6 weeks, 5 days a week, of radiotherapy. And oral intake of radioactive iodine which will require her to be hospitalised and isolated for 3 days.
Initially, we saw them as part and parcel of the total treatment which started with surgery. In fact, we were told how mild the side effects of such treatments would be. Then in our last visit to the hospital, which included additional scans and tests, the side effects of the radiotherapy and radioactive iodine were clearly spelled out.
I listened with a dropped jaw. There are permanent and temporary side effects. The permanent side effects include a lost of taste, dryness of mouth, stiffness and inability to move the neck, skin scaling and skin colouration. Temporary side effects include extreme fatigue, lost of appetite and mood swings.
At my mother’s age, surviving the surgery is a miracle. Even a young person will be worn down by 6 weeks, 5 days a week, of radiotherapy. The daily trips to the hospital, the waiting, the actual treatments – collectively I think it will be more traumatic than the surgery itself. For my mother, it may permanently affect her quality of life, something I want to avoid at all cost.
Western cancer treatment – using poison against poison – reminds me of the random search for Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction. Such search and destroy missions have killed countless civilian and innocent lives. The introduction and repeated doses of radiation into a human body, while killing the cancer cells, will kill every and anything in its path. It is collateral damage; it is as lethal as the disease is malignant.
Can my mother take such treatments at her age? Should I look to alternative options of treatment now that she has successfully completed surgery? I am of course open to more views from the doctors, but I am inclined to keep my mother away from radiation. She is not an old resident of Futaba. But am I making the right decision for her?
At the Singapore Cancer Centre, while waiting for my number to be called, waiting to see the doctors, waiting to pay the bills, and waiting to collect test results, I had the time to observe. Others fighting cancer. Most fighting cancer with radiation. They were not in the pink of health. Imagined or real, I saw tireless determination on their faces.
I try to remember these determined expressions. They help me get through a rough day.