MALAYSIA - After a few weeks of knowing him, we finally met up. He looked healthy, a bit on the thin side possibly, with slightly sunken cheekbones but a big smile that lit up the entire cafe.
I asked him how he was doing and ordered a cup of coffee. We talked about work and current issues. I wasn't really paying attention to the casual chit chat initially. I was more focused on the fact that his smile never left his face, and his hearty laughter at my silly jokes.
That he was so full of life sent me slowly into a quiet despair. Because Mukhlis Idris is a doctor. And Dr Mukhlis is suffering from cancer.
I knew about it from a dear friend prior to meeting him. I initially wanted to offer him support, to give him some consoling words, to extend my empathy and understanding. I never managed to do it. I just didn't know how to.
I didn't know how to soothe someone who has the same medical background as I do without sounding superfluous. Nor did I want to be emotionless or impassive. I am anything but that. And he is very sharp.
In the end I decided to ask him to tell me his story. Since it was a brief meeting he agreed to write instead. I think he prefers it that way anyway.
And this is what he wrote.
STORY OF THE BIG C
"Life has been a great teacher to me. Being a doctor does not exclude me from having a disease called cancer. The big C, people call it. In March last year, I plucked up the courage to go for a check-up where I was working after having had the longest episode of breathlessness, night sweats and general fatigue.
Well, fatigue is nothing new in my line of work but the other two symptoms were worrying. I tried self-diagnosis several times and it only gave more trouble than good. I consoled myself by telling myself that 'it's just asthma, you're just tired, get some medicine and you'll be all right tomorrow'. But the symptoms persisted. I had a terrible time doing my on calls.
Symptoms did not go away
SYMPTOMS DID NOT GO AWAY
My chest X-ray showed a large amount of fluid collection on the left side of my chest and the left lower part of my lung had collapsed. I was then hospitalised. The doctors suspected that I had contracted tuberculosis. I was on 13 tablets and I was a good patient. I took them every day at the exact time of the day for three weeks, but the symptoms did not go away. I wasn't feeling any better.
I got a few more test results, tuberculosis was excluded this time and my left lung was completely full of fluid by then. I was coughing up yellow phlegm, my speech and breathing were badly affected and I was readmitted again.
God knows how terrified I was when they had to insert a chest tube into my left chest. To my eyes, the diameter of the tube was nearly as wide as a marker pen.
I remembered looking at the monitor and realised that my oxygen level had dropped from 96 per cent to 65 per cent. Am I dying? The medical team managed to revive me and bring me back to life.
To cut the long story short, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a type of blood cell cancer that spreads in the lymphatic system. It was confirmed on April 4 last year.
My knees went weak and all I remembered was that minutes ago I had been sharing funny stories and laughing with my cousins.
I cried for two hours on the prayer mat that night, thinking how bad it might be from now. The future seemed bleak. I was completely worried for my parents. How on earth was I going to tell them about this?
I was under the care of the oncology team of the University Malaya Medical Centre. I had willingly undergone 12 chemotherapy sessions, each took six hours to complete and it really hurt.
I got so nauseous with the four chemotherapy agents infused into my veins, which turned hard. It felt like hot water coursing through the veins straight to my heart. The post-chemotherapy effects were bad - took me at least a week to recover from nausea, body ache, headache, fever, joint pains, to name a few."
Praying for strength
PRAYING FOR STRENGTH
"These violent cells are stubborn. They now reside in my heart and other new areas too. I must undergo two more cycles of chemotherapy. Please God, give me strength.
Death would be a possible conclusion to this chapter. But for now my heart remains strong and and my soul remains unbroken. Everyone dies so let us make that clear.
A meaningful life means a life where you have done your best surviving it. I am telling myself to have another go.
I am not writing this to gain pity but to show the world I am brave enough to ride the waves of obstacles. I know how it feels like to be on the receiving end of care.
And I know for a fact support is one of the most important things to have, to go through this. I am deeply grateful for the kindness and the patience of the treating team, my family and friends. I can't do it alone.
I myself cannot believe how strong I have become. Been on sick leave for a year now, my income is very much affected. Beading and sewing are my newly discovered talents and I am enjoying these, which have been my source of earning since last year. At least I have extra income for my family.
Of course I would do anything to get better. But there is nothing more precious than having a valuable life even though it is not long."
I shall be seeing him this coming Thursday, after my final exam. We plan on just hanging out. Maybe watch a movie. I look forward to that. To simply enjoy the present, and live in the moment. See you soon, buddy!