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A cancer story

I have been working in the field of cancer research for about 14 years. During this time I have heard thousands of cancer stories, met hundreds of cancer patients and survivors and discussed all aspects of cancer care with many folks.   But these cancer patients were strangers: I was fortunate that it didn’t happen to people I knew.  But sometimes they do affect you personally.

About eight months ago our office shifted to a brand new campus and as a result my commute route changed.  The bus driver for this new route used to greet me every day with a loud “Hey Pretty Girl” and I used to give him an awkward smile and rush to my seat.  This continued for about a week and then one day he asked me where I worked.  As soon as I said National Cancer Institute, I could see that he had a million questions.  His mother had died battling  skin cancer and during the 30 minute ride he proceeded to describe the entire story from the initial diagnosis, treatment, recurrence and eventual death.   The next day he wanted to know what treatments are being developed for cancer. He had heard that cancer differs from person to person and so during the half hour commute I tried to explain the basics of personalized medicine and tailoring treatment therapy to someone with fairly limited knowledge of science. I could see that he wanted to talk more about it but I was getting irritated. My commute was the precious time that I had to read and I resented anyone cutting into that time.  To avoid answering yet another series of questions, I printed off some basics of skin cancer information from our website and handed it to him.  The next day he had more questions.  How does cancer originate? How does it spread? What does metastasize mean?  I tried my best to explain these concept to him quickly but he wasn’t done with questions.

I needed my reading time.  Finally I started ignoring him. I pretended to be on the phone or busy with my blackberry. I even changed seats and moved to the one right behind the driver so I was not in his line of sight.   He took the hint and  started talking to the other passengers.  My timings changed and I stopped taking the same bus every day and then soon never saw him again.

Last week I had to go to the main campus and so I took a different bus from Germantown.  And lo & behold the driver was my old chatterbox friend.  As soon as he saw me he smiled and said I want to talk to you. Resigned to 30 minutes of non-stop conversation, I nodded.  But he waited till all the passengers climbed on, parked the bus and motioned to me to get down. Now I was intrigued. When I got off the bus, he took me aside and said “Thank you, you saved my life”. I was completely taken aback and could only goggle at him.  It turned out that after hearing me talk about cancer and/or reading the information he went to get a checkup.  Perhaps it was prompted by the stuff he read but he asked the doctor to check for cancer.  And he was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer and was scheduled for a prostatectomy in three days. He was very grateful to me and said that what I did saved his life.

I wasn’t sure what to feel. On one hand I was elated that I could help but more than that I felt guilty and embarrassed and remorseful about my earlier attitude.  I was upset at not being able to read in peace but the few moments I did give him (albeit resentfully) mattered a lot to him. Truly a very humbling experience.

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Copyright Deepa