My battle with my father’s cancer — and his doctors

I am continued to be plagued by the ‘professionalism’ of people we call doctors.

Mahrukh Hameed August 31, 2014

I have wanted to write this article for quite some time. My father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, stage three, in April 2010, completely out of the blue. I say ‘out of the blue’ because he was 58 at the time and was someone whom we, his family, had always considered very conscious about his health. He was in the habit of getting regular check-ups. We never worried about his health too much except for chastising him about smoking less, eating less relaxants and exercising more.

My interaction with that segment of professionals we call ‘doctors’ started in 2010 because of my father’s illness. I was 24 at the time, a barrister, educated enough to battle his disease with him and be his primary caregiver. During this time, I was in touch with oncologists (cancer doctors) from all over the world but he chose to stay primarily in Pakistan for his treatment which his oncologists assured me was the standard and at his age and health he had an excellent chance of recovering. This was reinforced by all doctors. But my father chose to stay.

Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital is the only cancer institute in Pakistan so we went there. We were told that the hospital was not taking any patients that had my father’s kind of cancer, that this was the board’s decision based on internal factors that they could not reveal and above all, that this decision was irreversible. I was told by the doctors of Shaukat Khanum off the record not to seek treatment from there anyway as they did not have sufficient doctors and as a result we would not be getting the best possible treatment within Pakistan.

I have no doubt that Shaukat Khanum is a good hospital and has cured countless people but I found something about these professionals whom we call ‘doctors’ quite baffling. I was also told by an oncologist there that someone very close to her was suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the same stage and even though she was at the helm of affairs at Shaukat Khanum, she had chosen to take her relative to London for the treatment. So, she suggested, if we had the means, we should do the same. Her attitude towards me was anything but ‘doctor like’. She glanced me up and down in an insolent manner, taking into account my unkempt appearance at the time: I glanced down to my feet and realised that I was wearing the chappals of one of our maids. I was so distracted with sorting out the hospital logistics that preening for myself did not even cross my mind.

Even after all this time, I continue to recall the rude and uncooperative attitude of the lady ‘doctor’. No matter how professional these people are, no matter how high-up they are in their professions, if they lack humanity and are dictated by prejudices of class in their interaction with their patients, what is the point of them being a doctor? Yes, I could afford treatment abroad. Yes, I would take my father to someone else, but what about those who can’t? I couldn’t for the life of me stop the image of her sneering at them from creeping into my mind again and again.

Later, I did discover that there are some professionals who didn’t have quite the same attitude but sadly, there were too many who do in our country. They might be the best in their fields but isn’t a bit of humanity the very part of their profession? It’s like a charted accountant who degrades your submitted financial record. You can probably shrug that off more easily than a rude doctor.

Moving on, my father started his treatment elsewhere and we practically went to war. When I recall that year of my life, I can only remember how hard we tried. I go back again and again trying to pinpoint the mistakes I made. The things I should’ve done differently. I am sure there are some. During this time I met with numerous doctors routinely and I ignored the attitudes some of them wore or the ‘references’ that most of them required for getting early appointments as a necessary inconvenience because my goal was just to succeed at this battle we were fighting with my father’s cancer. For the privileged in this country, it might not be about money, but ‘references’ are to be had.

Watching my strong father crumble under his heavy dosage of medicines took immense strength which I never knew I had. Nothing in life can prepare you for it unless you face this kind of stress, feel it on your skin.

My father went through eight cycles of chemotherapy during which he collapsed many times, had a variety of side effects such as hallucinations, nausea and constant fever being some of them. We had to extend the intervals between his cycles of chemotherapy so he could recover his strength. To say that life ceased to exist outside his treatment, doctors and medication would not be an exaggeration at all. My goal was simply that he should survive the cancer and eliminate it and that’s all I strove for.

After eight cycles of chemo, his PET-scan showed that the cancer was still there and his oncologist simply said that the only other option was stem cell transplant which, within Pakistan, was only possible at a renowned hospital in Karachi.  When my brother and I met with the head of oncology there, I nearly fainted when he said that my father should just have had six cycles and not eight and that the cancer should have gone within that period ‘IF’ it was still there. If? If? Didn’t the PET-scan show it as it being there? Upon this he said and I quote “Well the PET scan can be falsely positive due to a number of factors and the doctors here are not trained to read it. Here, we just do a CT.”

I wanted to believe that my father’s disease was not there. All I wanted to do at that time was take my father away from this country to a place where doctors would be ‘trained to read everything’. We immediately flew to Singapore where my father’s best friend had been treated for the same type of cancer.

To cut the very long story of my father’s very short life even shorter my battle with his cancer continued till 2013 in a variety of places. My father passed away in Lahore suddenly when we all, including the doctors, thought he had pneumonia but actually the cancer had spread to his whole body. I don’t know if I messed up in caring for him. He trusted me with his life after all. That kind of trust is impossible to return.

I am continued to be plagued by the ‘professionalism’ of people we call doctors. I know that If I had to do it all over again I would not have stayed in Pakistan for any part of his treatment.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2014.

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M A Khan | 6 years ago | Reply

@ Abu Musa, remember to say that to the next doctor's face when you or any of your family member is ill. You think you can make comparisons with someone with little formal education and training. Your mindset shows that you are closer to the mechanic in terms of what you want to say and hear.

M A Khan | 6 years ago | Reply

Not taking anything away from the sad loss of the author's father, I think the doctors are unfairly being targeted. You put too much expectations from an overburdened health system where doctors are overworked, underpaid with a lack of service structure and political victimization. Yet you expect standards comparable to the west where doctors working hours are limited to ensure a fresh mind every morning, overtime is compensated, professional development is facilitated and doctors well paid for their efforts. I worked in a western emergency room and have seen patients sitting in a waiting room for up to six hours without a whimper for their turn. If this was Pakistan, even waiting six minutes to be seen would mean bringing the whole neighbourhood and family to the emergency department to beat up the doctor, break the glass and put fire to the ward. It's the sham the way you treat your doctors that the better ones are leaving the country and you're left with what you get.

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