KARACHI: Superheroes do exist in real life, but many of them are not the stereotypical muscle-bound, spandex-wearing characters from your favourite comic book. A number of them are, in fact, the smallest members of a household, fighting the biggest battles. The moment they emerge victorious, they become an inspiration to those around them.
To honour the courage of these superheroes, the world is celebrating September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each year, for a month, people use “GoGold” as a Twitter hashtag to support the cause and raise awareness. However, as the month comes to an end, the struggle of these young warriors still continues. For them, it’s not just about a month. It’s for a lifetime.
The nightmare of having a child suffer from cancer is a reality for many, with thousands of new cases expected to be diagnosed every year. According to Dr Zehra Fadoo, pediatric oncologist at Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH), approximately 8,000 to 9,000 new cases of childhood cancer are reported every year in Pakistan, of which majority are leukemia more commonly known as blood cancer.
Despite having the same treatment protocol as adult cancers, the challenges faced by these patients, who are in their formative years, are rather different. How do children cope with a disease they can barely understand? How do they develop pain tolerance and the willpower to overcome a life-threatening physical ailment? And once they overcome it, how can they transition to a normal life?
For seven-year-old Obaid, the arduous journey started in April 2014 when he approached his third birthday. He was just like any other kid: playful, friendly, seemingly healthy and full of life. He had everything to look forward to right up to the point he was told time was running out. Doctors diagnosed Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and told his family that the writing was on the wall.
On one April morning in 2014, when Obaid was admitted to the hospital, he felt as if he had stepped into a horror movie; the events unfolding before his eyes were both intimidating and surreal. As was the case for his family. Looking back at that time, Obaid’s mother Shazia recalled that she refused to accept that her own flesh and blood was diagnosed with an ailment that could end his life. She could not help but feel that the ground had disappeared from beneath her feet and she was falling into an abyss.
The struggle was just as real for her husband, and Obaid’s father, Naveed Iqbal. As his wife sat at home imagining the worst, Naveed went from pillar to post in the hope of finding an alternate diagnosis; one that did not involve the word cancer.
“Obaid is the youngest and most special child of our family. He came to us as a gift from God. That’s why his siblings have spoilt him so much,” he said. “When he was admitted in pre-school, he was liked by all his teachers. They used to call him smart, intelligent and very responsive,” he remembered. “Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on his side. He fell sick and I ran to every nook and cranny to get a formal diagnosis of his illness.”
In the meantime, well-wishers and medical experts constantly kept reminding the father that treating cancer was an expensive proposition. This added an extra burden on him as financial constraints were a daily concern and the thought that he would be unable to afford his son’s treatment kept haunting him. “The first doctor who saw him sent us to a cancer hospital which was extremely costly. There, I spent Rs100,000 in one day. I was in a dilemma.”
However, as is often said, there is light at the end of the tunnel and Naveed saw it when he most needed it. “I knew I couldn’t afford the treatment and continue it. I went to another trusted doctor who referred us to National Institute of Child Health (NICH) where the proper [free] treatment began.”
The greatest struggle, needless to say, was that of Obaid’s whose life was changing fast. The emotional, psychological and physical duress of the treatment weighed heavily and the once everlasting smile became a distant memory. For a time, it seemed he would never be the same again. “During chemo, Obaid’s life came to a standstill. He couldn’t eat or drink. He was alive on IV drips and medicines.
The father said his physical condition had become so painful that he used to writhe on the bed in agony. “In addition, he became extremely cranky and emotional. His emotions were always on a rollercoaster – unpredictable.”
Failure to adhere to Obaid’s every whim would result in a tantrum. He was lashing out at the world. “Since he has stopped having food, I used to take him from shelf to shelf in supermarkets to make sure he bought something of his liking,” the father recalled. “Whatever he pointed his finger at, I immediately got for him. My main aim was to make him happy so he recovered soon.”
Obaid’s family constantly prayed for a miracle and it wasn’t long before their prayers were answered. In May 2017, Obaid completed his treatment and was told that he was in remission. He has gone from strength to strength ever since. He’s now a happy child, who seems as healthy as any other.
Obaid can never forget that day that he and his family marked their victory over cancer. Still bearing his scars of battle, Obaid walked hand in hand with his parents to receive a special gift on the completion of his treatment. For the first time in three years, little Obaid was no longer a patient. He was now a warrior, a survivor. This is a person, who at a very young age learnt that everyone dies, but not everyone truly lives. Every moment is precious and he intends to live each one to the fullest.