by M. Mohankumar
“Why are you looking so gloomy?” his wife asked him as she came into the study with a cup of tea. He was sitting in his swivel-chair staring into space, his brows knitted. A book lay on his lap upside down. She read the title: The Emperor of All Maladies.
She placed the cup on the table and stood beside him looking at his tense face. She knew her man – at least that was what she thought. He would get upset at the slightest provocation and then withdraw into himself and remain silent, sometimes for hours.
“Anything the matter?” she asked him.
“No, nothing,” he said, and lapsed into silence.
But she knew there was something. The spell of silence was too long this time.
It was not as if he wanted to hide anything from her. They were a happy couple, and there was perfect understanding between the two of them. It was a happy family with two bright, school-going boys; and a brilliant career lay before him. He was already an Associate Professor of English at a relatively young age and was loved by his students and highly thought of in academic circles.
But, of late, a fear had crept into his mind. A vague, uncertain fear. If it turned out to be true, it could spell disaster for him and his family. But he did not want to tell his wife at this stage, and cause her needless anxiety.
A small lump in the left breast. That was what weighed him down. His left breast was a little larger; but that didn’t matter. Nobody had noticed it, not even his wife. But this lump- it could be a serious matter.
It was more than a week ago that he noticed it first, less than the size of a peanut. He thought nothing of it at that time… Then, two days later, he happened to feel it again while taking his morning bath. There it was, slightly larger than before. Day after day he felt it- felt it several times a day- and found it growing, slowly though, and he was concerned.
Could it be a malignant tumour, threatening his life? No, he’d not heard of men getting breast cancer. It might be some harmless lump. But how could he be sure? If he were to ask some of his friends they might laugh at him. In fact, he already had the reputation of a hypochondriac among his friends.
He searched the Internet and was flooded with information on the subject. He learnt that breast cancer in men is rare but it could happen. It always began as a lump in the breast…
Eighty percent of breast lumps are noncancerous, he read. But then the remaining twenty percent is a significant number. To which category did he belong?
And if the lump was cancerous? Much depended on how long he was having it. He didn’t know. He detected the lump only the other day; but it could have been there, growing, much before. Could it have spread to other parts?
The obvious course was to consult a doctor. But he won’t do it if he could help it. He had an aversion to doctors ever since his father died of cancer in the liver years ago. The doctors could detect it only at the last stage and by then it was too late. No, he won’t attribute it to willful negligence. But he believed, with many others, that doctors had, over the years, become less caring about their patients.
He decided to wait for some time.
Again and again, his wife asked him what the matter was; and again and again he gave an evasive answer. He didn’t want a pall of gloom to descend on his cheerful home.
One night he woke up from his sleep, screaming.
“What happened?” his wife asked, startled.
“I’d a bad dream,” he said. He didn’t elaborate.
Tiny beads of perspiration stood on his forehead. And his hands were clammy.
“There’s something that troubles your mind,” she said. “You should take your wife into confidence.”
There was a note of reproof in her voice.
“Just a silly dream,” he said, rolling over to the other side.
It was a dream that left him suffocated. A dream in which he saw a tall, hooded man standing by the cot glaring eyes fixed on his prostrate body and a drawn dagger in the upraised, bony hand. He woke up with a scream. Do dreams portend anything? he asked himself. He didn’t think so; but he was disturbed nonetheless.
Next day, standing before his students in the postgraduate class, he almost broke down. He was teaching Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats was his favourite poet on whose poetic credo he had written a dissertation and obtained his PhD. He had taught this Ode year after year in the past; but now, in his present state of mind, he found in some of those lines an appeal and a poignancy that he had not experienced before. And as he read the line
“And youth grows pale and spectre-thin and dies“
he choked and his eyes were wet. No doubt the poet had in mind his younger brother, Thomas, who had died of tuberculosis. Did it foreshadow his own fate, project his apprehension that he might cease to be before his pen had gleaned his teeming brain?
That evening, he told his wife. For a moment she was speechless. “It must be just a lump,” she said, recovering herself. “My father too had it and after some time it disappeared on its own. But we must consult a doctor.”
He refused to go to a doctor. She pleaded and wept, wept and pleaded, to no avail.
As days passed, he made a new discovery: the lump had ceased to grow! But the nagging doubt still remained: could it have spread to other parts? His anxiety grew till it became unendurable. And his wife, on her part, kept up the pressure.
At last they went to the hospital, and consulted a general physician. The doctor turned out to be a soft-spoken person whose very presence had a soothing effect on his frayed nerves.
“You’re anaemic,” the doctor said, after a thorough examination. “We’ll have a blood test done. The lump may be just a cyst which could be easily removed; but we’ll have an X-ray and ultrasound, just to rule out…”
Two days later, studying the reports, the doctor said that a biopsy should be done, and referred him to an oncologist.
The very thought of going to a cancer specialist, walking through corridors crowded with patients and by-standers, appalled him. Two years ago he had gone to see a colleague’s wife in the Cancer Institute and had seen the corrosive effect the disease had on the patients. Negative thoughts crowded into his mind. What would happen after the biopsy, if at all he were to undergo it? Perhaps some more irksome tests. And then the long-drawn-out treatment, in and out of the hospital: radiation and chemotherapy and the inevitable side effects. The disease might go under for some time, but it could flare up again. All this would be a great torture. No, let nature take its course, he said to himself.
Suddenly, a subtle change came over him. He became more tolerant and forgiving, more caring and solicitous. He saw how beautiful the earth was, clothed in all its resplendent glory; how, despite many drawbacks, the world was still a wonderful place to live in. And he started taking delight in simple things. If only he could live for some more years, disease-free…
But, on no account, would he consult a specialist.
His wife couldn’t bear it any longer. She lost her patience. She flew into a rage and asked him, “Don’t you have a responsibility to your wife and your children?” That question knocked some sense into his mind.
At last he fixed an appointment with the oncologist. But days before it was to take place, the lump disappeared.