Still sitting in the diner, I am catapulted all the way back to 2005…when I got the worst phone call I’d ever received in my life. It was from our family doctor, Dr. Kowano. I’d almost not taken the call, as that was the time a lot of fraudster calls where coming from Nigeria and I wasn’t sure if the strange number was one of them. Thankfully, I’d answered it on the second ring, and what I heard forever changed my life.
“Ezioma, I’m so sorry to bother you like this.” Dr. Kowano had said after we’d exchanged pleasantries. I was still trying to process his surprising call and my brain was already running all sorts of scenarios in my head.
But of all the numerous scenarios, I never imagined what I heard next.
“It’s your mother, Ezioma.” he continues, his voice grim. “I’m so sorry to be calling you like this, but she has left me with no choice. I know I shouldn’t be breaking patient confidentiality like this, but I feel I owe it to your late father, who was so wonderful to me.”
“What’s the problem, doctor?” I asked, my heart racing a mile a minute.
“Your mother has cancer, Ezioma. Stage IV Breast cancer. And she has refused to progress further with any more treatment.”
Till this day, I remember clearly the impact of his words on me. It was about 4pm on the Friday before the July 4th Independence Day weekend, and the office had already emptied out. I’d just been promoted to Associate from Analyst, so I’d been trying to earn extra brownie points by working through the holiday. But as he spoke, even though I was sitting at my desk, it felt like I was caught in a hurricane and everything was suddenly spinning all around me. I grabbed the edges of my seat to steady myself, just as his words sank in.
Cancer? From where?! How?!
I was on a plane to Nigeria the following Sunday. With Ebere living in Germany at the time and Enyinna having just relocated to South Africa, Uchechi, our youngest sister, was the only one with our Mom in Nigeria, and as she herself was in school most of the time, it was no wonder our Mom had been able to hide her condition for so long.
Getting to the house, one look at her and I knew she was in a bad state. Funnily enough, she didn’t seem surprised to see me at all. It was almost like she’d been expecting it.
“That yeye Chike!” she said, referring to Dr. Kowano. “I knew he couldn’t keep his mouth shut!”
I proceeded to confront her on her decision not to undergo further treatment, but she remained adamant. Apparently, she’d discovered the lump in her breast as far back as two years prior. It was a small one and the first few doctors she’d seen hadn’t thought much of it. It was when the lump started getting bigger she decided to go to the Teaching Hospital, where she’d been diagnosed with Stage III cancer. She’d been told she didn’t need chemotherapy, and quietly underwent a lumpectomy and a few sessions of radiotherapy, after which she’d been given the all clear. Unfortunately, earlier that year, two years after being declared cancer free, another lump revealed this time Stage IV cancer, which had already mestasised to her bones. She had one session of chemotherapy, but had such a bad reaction to it, she decided to pull the plug. Which is why Dr. Kowano chose to take matters into his hands by calling me.
“Nwa’m, going through that chemotherapy treatment is not a good quality of life at all!” she said to me. “I can not live my life feeling that way. That one is not treatment…it is fast track to death! And I am not going to put myself through any of that!”
Nothing I could say could change her mind; not me threatening, not when Ebere and Enyinna flew into town after I co-opted them to help convince her, not even when I threatened to quit my job back in America so I could sit with her forever. My stubborn mother remained unmoved and instead chose to depend on some Naturopathic Medical Practioners, who propagated natural herbs as treatment for cancer. Even though she continued to steadily decline, I couldn’t remain in Nigeria forever, as I had to return to work after about a month away, as did Ebere and Enyinna. Alas, the natural herbs did not work and she succumbed to her cancer a day after her birthday in November of that same year. As we buried her, I hated myself for not insisting more persistently. I hated myself for not forcing her to undergo the necessary treatment. As a matter of fact, we all did. In different ways, we all blamed ourselves for our mother’s death. Thank God for Seth, whom I’d just started dating, and who held my hand through the healing process. If it weren’t for him, I might have just had a nervous breakdown.
Somehow, I got over it…we all did. The following year, just while I was still riding the wave of excitement from being promoted at work, I got an email from Uchechi, with these seven simple words.
I found a lump in my breast.
The first thing I did was to call her, and she confirmed that she’d indeed found a small lump on the side of her breast the day before. Not wanting to repeat my mistake from the previous year, I was on the first plane to Nigeria. Ebere was newly separated and was also back home in Nigeria. We all rallied around and took Uchechi to South Africa for better medical care. It was there she underwent chemotherapy. Having to watch my baby sister suffer through the horrible effects of the treatment was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. Seeing her degenerate and in so much pain when I was too helpless to do anything about it, literally broke me.
But after 6 gruelling weeks of intense treatment, she was given the all-clear, and we took her back to Nigeria. I returned to the States almost immediately, and made it a point of duty to check on her daily.
Just before Christmas of that year, 2006, Uchechi started complaining of a persistent shoulder pain. After several trips to different doctors, she was told it was nothing to worry about, and that it was likely nerve damage from the radiotherapy. She was sent for physiotherapy and given painkillers. I remember not taking it too seriously, advising her to rest over the Christmas holidays and assuring her all would be well.
But the pain worsened in the New Year, and it got so bad that she was unable to cope in school. Even though she’d been desperately trying to catch up on all the school work she’d missed during her cancer treatment, the pain she was suffering was soon becoming unbearable. That was when I started to get worried, and instructed Ebere to take her to see a better doctor. After routine blood work showed alarming abnormalities in her blood levels, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. With her history in mind, I didn’t want to take any chances, and organised for Ebere to take her back to South Africa for further medical attention. It was in South Africa that we were hit with the worst bombshell we could ever have been able to fathom. Uchechi ‘s cancer had returned and mestasised to her liver. I was on the first plant to join them in Johannesburg, but no sooner had I landed did her doctors realise the cancer was also in her lungs. While we were still discussing a logical mode of treatment, it was discovered to be in her brain as well, which was when the doctors advised us to opt for palliative care, as there was nothing they could do for her. Hearing that our baby sister had only weeks left literally broke Ebere and I. We were devastated.
I remember us pondering over where she would get the best palliative care; there in South Africa or back home in Nigeria. It was Enyinna who’d been able to shake off his own emotions and advise that we take her back to Nigeria, as it was ‘more expensive for a corpse to be carried home than for her to fly home on her own accord.’ So we opted take her back home.
On Sunday, April 08 2007, Easter Sunday, lying on her bed and surrounded by us her siblings, and her nurses, my beloved Uchechi died.
It was at that point that Ebere and I realised that we were high risk, having lost our mother and sister within only a couple of years. Burying Uchechi was even worse than burying our mother, and I found myself in tears almost every single day, even after I’d returned to New York.
So, from my Mom and sister’s stories, I know that a cancer diagnosis is as good as a death sentence for me.
I finally leave the diner just as they are about to shut down for the evening. It is like I am in a trance as I drive home. I don’t hear the music from the radio, or even notice any other drivers on the road. I can’t have cancer. I just can’t.
I get home to a very upset Seth, but after I make up a lie of getting held up at a meeting, he seems pacified and satisfied by my story. But that night, lying in bed with my back to him, my mind races all night, wondering what the outcome of my tests will be. Morning simply can’t come soon enough.
By 6am, I am already showered, and before it’s 7am I am on my way to the clinic. Naomi is waiting for me, and I am soon ushered in to see an older doctor, a silver haired man with a kind face. He performs a physical exam, and when I see a frown cross his face, I realise I might be in trouble.
“Do you feel anything?” I ask.
“There’s definitely a mass there, underneath the fatty tissue.” he answers.
I am then sent off for several scans, followed by a painful biopsy to remove fluid and breast tissue for testing. But I am gravely disappointed that none of my results will be ready soon, and that I will have to wait a few more days for the verdict.
I go through the rest of the week like a zombie, unable to focus on anything other than the possible outcome of the tests. By the time the week is coming to an end and I am literally almost losing my mind, I finally get the phone call I have been waiting all week for.
“I’m sorry, Ezi. It’s cancer.” comes Naomi’s sober voice. “All the tests confirmed it. But the good news is that we caught it in time. It’s Stage II. Thank God for last month’s routine exams. If we’d waited for the tumour to manifest via a lump, it might have become Stage IV, and much harder to treat. We also found a small mass in your other breast, but if we move quickly, we could beat this thing.”
I am tempted to cry and laugh out loud at the same time. I also want to strangle her for daring to raise my hopes by telling me nothing but lies. We could beat what? The same cancer which killed my mother and sister? How do I tell her that, in my family, we don’t come out on top when it comes to cancer?! How do I tell her that, in my family, cancer wins every time?!
I go straight home, without even knowing what to do with myself. With Seth not home, I am happy for the peace and quiet I have to be able to write on my blog, something I haven’t done in a long time. Now that I am no longer paid to write, I only come on the blog whenever I feel like it.
And today, it is the only outlet I have to vent all my pent up anger and frustration.
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) – April 05, 2017
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I’m easy come, easy go, little high, little low
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me…
…Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooh, (Any way the wind blows)
I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
I am struggling to write words of my own when droplets on my keyboard are an indicator that I am crying. But the more I wipe them off, the faster they rush down in torrents. It doesn’t take long before I am bawling m eyes out.
I have cancer. I’m going to die.
And there’s hardly anything one can say or do about that.
Catch up on Ezioma’s story here:
- A Love of Convenience! 1: Handbags & Gladrags
- A Love of Convenience! 2: There she goes
- A Love of Convenience! 3: The day will surely come
- A Love of Convenience! 4: Russian Farmer’s Song
- A Love of Convenience! 5: Moonlighting Strangers
- A Love of Convenience! 6: Knocks me off my feet
- A Love of Convenience! 7: A simple kind of life
- A Love of Convenience! 8: I can’t help it
- A Love of Convenience! 9: Edge of desire
- A Love of Convenience! 10: The Fear
- A Love of Convenience! 11: Ordinary People
- A Love of Convenience! 12: Me and Mrs. Jones
- A Love of Convenience! 13: You could be happy
- A Love of Convenience! 14: Linger
- A Love of Convenience! 15: Sunday Morning
- A Love of Convenience! 16: Drive