The pattern of soft, white snow undulates into the hills of the tranquil distance. As I trek home, the heavy footprints that trail behind me seem to speak of the onerous load crushing down upon my frail body. They plague the pure, untouched snow with their shrill, unspoken words. I do not belong here. My diseased body is a tainted streak in this perfect painting. I stop to take a breath, only to find myself breathing even harder. A family of wasps is crawling down my already dry throat. I start coughing incessantly, and throw my head against my sleeve. Small red droplets of blood splatter against it. My chest is throbbing, but as I clutch it tightly, the blood impresses against my coat, as if a painter had accidentally thrown paint on me. Dyspnea. Hemoptysis. Dysphagia. I cannot remember what these words mean, but they beckon to me, as I stand in the lonely wilderness, wishing for the pain to stop. Is this pain from the coughing or is it from something deeper? Grabbing my chest tightly, I do something that I could not do before. I cry.
That was the day my doctor informed me that I had contracted pleural meliothemia, a cancer to the mesothelium of the lung. I could not understand. I had worked hard my entire life, serving the public, educating my peers, and taking care of my family. I had promised to watch my children graduate college and marry, and to live a peaceful retirement by the seaside with my husband. When the symptoms developed, I had told myself that I was only overworked. But at the moment that my doctor announced the results of the thoracoscopy and MRI scanning, I laughed. It was a joke. I knew it.
Speak with your family about this. I will prescribe you some medication to alleviate your pain. During this time, you may experience shortness of breath…swelling come back for chemotherapy surgery cannot help. His words warped together into incomprehensible gibberish, but seven deafening words struck my ear. You have about one year to live.One year to live. Those words seemed so familiar.
My father had been a cancer victim a long time ago, when I was still in junior high school. He had only one year to live. No one ever told me about his circumstances; my parents thought I was too young to understand. One day, he came home from work announcing that he was going to retire he was 64. I was stunned that he never mentioned this to the family, but my mother asked no questions, and I remained silent.
Although retired, my father never seemed to be at home. He would take tai chi classes on Sunday and English classes on weekdays, in addition to long morning walks in the park. But he seemed much older. He could not recall tasks that he had already completed. He would constantly complain of blurry vision, and ask me to read him words in the newspaper that only months ago he sat reading by himself. He often carried the pungent smell of Chinese oil that he applied to his aching body. The house smelt of Chinese herbal medicine.
Then one night, my parents did not return home. My mother told me that my father had been hospitalized. Why? She would not tell me. When my father came home, he had lost all his spirit. He abandoned his recreational classes and remained home, lying on the couch for days. My mother took a vacation from her job and went out with my father nearly every week. Every time they returned, he looked older and more fatigued. He would lie in his bed from day to night and curtly respond to me with what little breath he had. One day, my mother came home with the news. Your father had cancer. But he survived it. The tumor has disappeared! The doctor says it is a miracle! I did not know whether to laugh or to cry, to be angry or grateful that she told me this news. I started to spend more time with my father, because I knew that every day that passed by would be one less day that I had to spend with him. I made the right choice. One month later, my father was hospitalized again. We were too naive to think that miracles could happen the malignant tumors had traveled to his brain. He came home in even more destitution. Lying lethargically in bed every day, he lacked the spirit to move, laugh, or talk. I would sometimes find him on the floor, and rush to pick him up and hold him tightly. My father constantly spoke of death, asking my mother to prepare his ancestor altar and will. I told him to stop thinking about the future, and enjoy life as it was now with the family that loved him. It was impossible for him to ignore the truth that at any minute, he would no longer remain living a fact that I refused to believe until he fell into a deep coma from which he would never wake.
As I stand on this earth now, knowing that I might be gone from this world exactly one year later, I finally understand how my father had felt. He was desperate to live, but his body told him to surrender. The tai chi classes, English classes, morning walks they were all part of his small effort to enjoy life to its fullest, and to maintain his health as much as possible. Cancer consumed this spirit, and left him a stranger to the world. I cannot let this happen to me.
As these thoughts rewind in my mind, I remember the book, They Said Months, I Chose Years: A Mesothelioma Survivor’s Story, that I had read years ago about James Rhio O’ Connor. He had outlived pleural mesothelioma for eight years by taking the initiative to research his own therapy protocols through books, patients, researchers, and professional clinicians, because surgery was not a viable option. Instead of submitting to the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, O’Connor resorted to alternative medicine; he began to take supplements, restructured his diet, and practiced mind-body medicine. I look up into the sky. I will uphold my father’s spirit and O’Connor’s fortitude to defeat my own disease.
A part of me has died, but another part of me has been reborn. Staring at the stars now, I realize that for my entire life, I have never looked at world above me. I always looked straight ahead, charging headlong for my goals. Now, it is time to slow down, and look up. Every tree, every drop of snow, has a unique pattern waiting to be noticed and an important message waiting to be heard. If I could look at the world as if every image was a photograph, I would appreciate life even more. I remember my college professor once telling me that the world consists of yin and yang. Everything has an internal energy that circulates among us to create a balance with earth’s forces. As my body battles the growing tumors in my lungs, I breathe in the nature that composes me. I will take photographs of the world around me, so that I can learn to appreciate the world that I have neglected.
I will not yield to disease’s commands, but retaliate against them. Witnessing the effects of medicine and chemotherapy treatment on my father, I realize that in prolonging life, they also kill the person, leaving him with a life that has gone astray drained of hope, spirit, and enjoyment. I cannot let this happen to me. I will follow O’Conner’s path, and talk to family, health professionals, researchers, and health practitioners from other cultures to find an alternative way to treat my disease. I will write online blogs regarding my experience, with hopes that my audience can provide advice or support. Most importantly, my blogs will serve as a way to transmit my spirit of living to other cancer survivors. I will create a non-profit organization based on education and volunteer services. Education is empowerment. Voluntary service is hope. People are afraid of the threat of disease; they are hesitant to question the conventional paths of fate that their cultures have drawn for them. I will travel the globe to give lectures about my disease to encourage prevention and spirit as a healing medicine. I will recruit volunteers to give support to other cancer victims who are under treatment. My goal is to spread the gift of courage and knowledge. Living with cancer is not a constant battle but a challenge to understand one’s place in the world.
The trees rustle in the distance, whispering softly in laudation of my courage. I am now a part of the hills. Coughing, I take in heavy breaths of air as I make my way home to tell my family about pains and hopes for the future. As I trek through the snow, I carry the spirit of my father that has encouraged me to persist and the strength of James O’Conner that has motivated me to become empowered and to empower the world.
Note From the Author: The content in this essay is purely fictional, but the narrative regarding my father’s disease is based on a true story. Writing the essay was a challenge for me, as it made me think about my own experiences as a child. Through this, I hope to inspire all cancer survivors to live on with their goals and dreams, without ever allowing the disease to obscure them.
By: Yu, Mon Yuck