Sunday, February 23, 2014

Melancholy

It's been three weeks since I last posted on my blog. If I had been on adventures feeling the wind in my hair and joy soaring within my heart, it would be a wonderful excuse for having not pounded fingers to keyboard for this length of time. However, I'm going to be real with you and share some truths that have hit right to the very heart.

If you're not up for being real ... consider yourself warned.

..............

Melancholy, is how I've been feeling of late. It's become my best friend, whispering stories to me of sadness and sometimes despair. Unfortunately, it's also an old friend, so all this is not new. What is new, is feeling melancholy in Sri Lanka and needing to bear with it in a foreign land with different cultural nuances and ways of dealing with difficult subject matters.

The main reason for the melancholia is the rapid onset of old age and the diagnosis of terminal illness in someone I deeply respect and care for. This person I consider an adopted father and who has embraced me into his family, shown me the beauty of Sri Lanka and from the very beginning simply and truly accepted me. Therefore, learning of his terminally illness and witnessing his rapid decline, has been a very bitter pill to swallow.

Generally, old age is given due respect in Sri Lanka. Illness, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. Culturally, I've found local people love talking about illness, especially extended family illness and people they know. It's a particularly hot topic of conversation for mid to older women. The weird thing is, when it comes to immediate family and more specifically a diagnosis of "cancer", people seem to want to hide it. Is there a cultural stigma attached to being diagnosed with cancer over here? Apparently there is. Something to do with kamma, beliefs and social perceptions. I may have gotten the wrong end of the stick...

Anyway, what I observe is it's difficult to lean on your extended support network if they don't know things are looking real serious on the health front. That's like a double whammy!

So, back to the melancholia. In recent months I've been spending time in hospitals, and around illness. If you're not a trained medical professional, and I definitely am not, then you're not prepared for the truth about old age, sickness and death. And that's what you find visiting hospitals or people who are old, sick or knocking on death's door.

It's shocking to see someone who was apparently strong, healthy and full of life suddenly decline to weak, terminally ill and finding it difficult to breathe. Plus, if you're accompanying them to the hospital, you see people young and old also dealing with various illnesses. It's a stark contrast to the relative joys of the visiting the maternity ward.

My heart feels heavy because I'm among a family desperately searching for answers, remedies and cures, which cannot be found. The family is looking into both western and Ayurveda treatments. This is a positive because a two-pronged approach is better than one-pronged. However, not all treatments are complementary and this is an enormous challenge. They are also doing research into other alternative and complementary treatments. Multi-pronged approaches may increase the odds of cure, remedy, or better palliative care?

From what I can tell, the medical specialists have said there is not much that can be done to cure this form of cancer. In fact, when I do online research the bottom line is there is no cure. And with his age, and other ailments the prognosis is not favorable. From my conversations with the family, the medical doctors have not given it straight. Instead they've used medical jargon to essentially give false hope. The big question is do you keep shuttling an old terminally sick patient to-and-from various hospitals for further tests, possible surgery, (unlikely) chemotherapy etc. only to find him weaken further? Add to this the expense, the crowded hospitals, the waiting times and so on.

Reading up on advanced cancer treatment and palliative care, what can be expected is pain management, dyspnea, loss of appetite, depression, lack of energy, nausea, vomiting, constipation and more. It reminds me of reading a horror/suspense novel and the frightening climax towards the end of the story. Sad to say, but my parents didn't give me much of a clue about the end. They were more about educating me on the beginning and middle parts, never the ending.

Interestingly, living in a Buddhist country birth, old age, sickness and death is very much at the forefront of the teachings of the Buddha. Unlike my own country, the reality or truth of old age, sickness, death and suffering is taught, not hidden. Whether or not it's fully understood is another story, but it is put out there for all and sundry to contemplate or reflect upon.

I've been to visit my fair share of Ayurveda doctors, healers and vedha mahathiyas. I can now report I've seen two more on this journey with my friends to find a cure for cancer. There are various healers who claim to have cured various cancers in Sri Lanka. I've visited a few of them in the past - not that I actually met any patients who were cured, so it's still hearsay as far as I am concerned. But, there are definitely some rasa healers who purport to have achieved this feat. Essentially, I do accept that scepticism and doubt are not in any way friends with faith. And, I admit you need to have or give over some faith in order for any treatment to work. This includes both traditional and alternative medicine!

What I have discovered is there are some really great things about Ayurveda. Things that have been passed down which are intuitively wonderful. They are not cures, but treatments that aid improvements on the path to managing illness. A lot also has to do with diet. If you've been reading my blog, you will already know I am adventurous with food as well as being somewhat "up-for-the-challenge" when I learn new things about healthy eating and safe food. There are a few things of interest about the diet plans which I will share in a later post, so watch this space.

For now, I'd like to share some recent thoughts about Ayurveda doctors. On one level they are appear much like their traditional medicine counterparts in that they give false hope to patients and their families. I understand they need to strongly believe or show faith in their abilities to heal, but, if it's not backed up by evidence, then I feel we're entitled to question them on their treatment plan. And guess what, they don't like being questioned, much like some of their traditional medicine counterparts. In fact, one Ayurveda doctor came straight out and said "Patients normally follow our instructions. They never ask questions". I take this as more of an altitude difference or cultural norm, rather than blind faith. Or possibly a mix of both. If you have the ability for blind faith then it's possible miracles could result, but the odds are slim.

At the end of the day, I'm torn between science, which was part of my education and a certain openness to miracles and things we can't explain.

I've mentioned "false hope" a few times in this blog post and this is because I've been contemplating "hope" for the past little while. One of the definitions of hope is to feel (or believe or trust) that something you expect may happen. So, in the instance of illness, we often hope the patient will be cured. Unfortunately, when it comes to terminal illnesses and death, this kind of hope is unlikely futile. And when healers and medical professionals give you hope, when there is no chance of cure or recovery, then I have to label it "false hope". As receivers of this false hope we often blindly cling to it as our anchor.

And, what I'm saying is it hurts to have this feeling or knowledge that we are not really honest with ourselves and with each other. When I look at this old man I care for, who has a terminal illness, what I'm also seeing is the inevitability that it will be me someday... not if, but when.

Maybe I'd feel better being honest and admitting at this juncture we can't find a cure for this cancer. And, even though it seems to bring despair, it is better to acknowledge all we can do is prepare for the inevitable. Yes, we will still do everything in our power to try to find treatments, but we do this alongside dealing with the facts. It's a kinder, more truthful reality. One that allows anger, sadness, hurt and a multitude of other emotions, and which eventually lead to acceptance. If I walk this honest path, then maybe it'll help others to walk it too.


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