As an experienced student observer in the cancer hospital, I could tell there was something different about this patient. His bright shirt, plastered with superheroes was the first sign. My little brother loved superheroes, too. I wanted to hug him, this young man lying in the hospital bed. Lying in the wrong direction too. I think that was the second sign. He’d piled his pillows at the foot of his bed and only sat up as we walked in. His visitor had moved the chairs in the room together turning them into a makeshift bed. Ingenious, I thought. His bed position was for good reason; he hadn’t been able to sleep any other way.
Sitting cross-legged, he told us that he didn’t like the hospital beds. It was a legitimate complaint; hospital beds are not famous for their comfort. And then he explained the reason he had been admitted to the hospital. He used his hands as he spoke and there was vitality in each movement. His spirit was perhaps the third sign I had. Cancer may have touched him, but he was certainly not beaten.
I watched the young man with fascination as he asked the attending I was shadowing when his next radiation appointment would be. There was deliberation, perhaps some resignation, but not a single sign of defeat in his voice. If I had not read his report, I would have thought him the picture of health. And perhaps, had I seen him in the hospital hallways, I would have pegged him as a visitor. We had met many patients that morning on rounds, and all the patients before him had borne the unmistakable signs of this disease. And yet, this, too, was the face of cancer. I realized that the signs of cancer are sometimes unpredictable and remain very much a mystery to me even after some personal family experiences. I have always been fascinated by oncology; in my family, cancer was indeed the Emperor of All Maladies. I hadn’t understood how much this was true when my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer; I was in my teens and I had absolute faith in the American healthcare system. My father’s oncologist was thorough in his explanations, calming in his approach and gave me a sense of security that my father would be alright. It was only two years later, when my grandmother in Nigeria was diagnosed with breast cancer that the truth struck home.
I was in university when my grandmother was diagnosed. My mother called me to break the news. I was leaving a Literature and Medicine course and I told the first person I saw, my professor.
“I am going to break the rules of social etiquette, and hug you,” she said.
I needed that hug. I needed that hug, because I was afraid. I knew more than I had when my father was diagnosed, and there already seemed to be so many complications.
My personal experience with oncology drew me to the cancer hospital, and in my time observing rounds, I have seen many patients who are afraid. It’s not just the knowledge of what could happen that is frightening, it is also the questions and the uncertainty of the future. I knew that feeling of helplessness, fear, and anxiety because cancer, as I understand now, is not one disease, but many. Treating it takes not just one approach, but several. And results are not absolute, but varied.
It was a hard lesson for me as a pre-med whose dream is to save lives. Doctors primarily work to keep people living, but sometimes, how much they can do is difficult to predict. It doesn’t mean that they stop trying; it means that there is more work to be done. To change those ever present odds. I want to learn how to do that. Whether or not it will be in oncology is, as they say, a story to be continued.
About Ogochukwu Ezeoke
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Ogochukwu and her family immigrated to the United States in 2004. Following her graduation in 2011, with a Bachelor of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology, she accepted a Research Study Assistant position at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where she coordinated clinical trials for the development of melanoma and sarcoma therapies. In addition, she continued her research with Dr. Joy Chukwujindu, on the study of pharmacovigilance in western Africa. Ogochukwu has published two novels, which are the beginning of a coming of age series. Her novels, “The Life and Times of Elizabeth and the Duchess,” and “The Life and Times of the Heir and the Keeper,” chronicle the adventures of two teens in the fictional Caspian University. Ogochukwu prepares to begin medical school this fall in the Class of 2019, at SUNY Upstate Medical University. While keeping an open mind to the many paths available in medicine, it is her hope to play an active role in the investigation of rare cancers, and in the development of focused therapies, through clinical research.