Thursday, February 23, 2023

The advantage of having been a patient of leukemia in the past

It wouldn’t surprise me if I hear someone who has had the experience of having had some form of cancer in the past wishing that he never had the illness before.  If we have the ability to go back to a time of our lives in the past, and will that those painful events never happened to us, I am quite certain that cancer patients would want to eradicate that part of their lives that were so debilitating.  But there is no such option available to us human beings. 


Ever since I have returned to ministry as a priest, I have been paying special attention to parishioners who tell me that they have some form of blood cancer like Leukemia.  I would ask them for their home address, and when I am available and my time table permits, I would make that effort to drive to their homes and pay them a pastoral visit, often giving them the option for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, and pray with them.  It brings them so much comfort. 


Just today, I drove to the home of a Catholic just outside of the boundaries of the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and it was to visit a Leukemia patient who is about to be admitted into the Singapore General Hospital for a Bone Marrow transplant next week.  I found myself going purposefully back to my own experience of having been a Leukemia patient myself back in 2012, and shared with him the kinds of difficulties when undergoing the chemotherapy and full body radiation that ensures the recipient’s body would not be fighting against the introduction of the bone marrow from another human being.  I recall my radiologist friend telling me that the weakened body after the many doses of full body radiation is like a body having gone through the ardors of Fukushima with the Tsunami disabling the power supply and cooling down of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, with all three cores largely melting in the first three days.  The body goes through a tremendous weakness after the full body radiation, but I can’t imagine how the body would fare if the body’s defences were not depleted before the transplant happened. 


It was because I saw the huge benefit of the full body radiation that I told myself that I would want to be able to share the experience I had with patients who have this on their treatment for the leukemia.  I made sure that even as I spoke with clarity and passion, I would also lace it with the kind of humour that most people know me for. 


This is all part of the awareness that I have that a priest should always be alert to the role that pain and suffering has in his priesthood.  I consider myself so blessed to have had the experience of having had biphenotypic acute leukemia, which was a mixture of both types of acute leukemias, the acute myeloid leukemia and the acute lymphoblastic leukemia.  Some parts of the treatment were particularly filled with moments of doubt and uncertainty, but I take it as just a part of the whole process of getting treated for the blood cancer. 


I always try to instill into the patient that it is always good to be aware of the possibility of offering up one’s discomfort and pains that are part of the process of recovering from the cancer, and to offer them up for souls in purgatory.  As I say this, I am always checking the visage of the listener to see if there is a strong negative reaction from them resulting from what I am trying to inculcate in them. 


Most of the Leukemia patients I encounter in my parishes have thanked me for the way I spoke candidly to them about the entire chemo and radiation protocol.  I am aware that most doctors try not to prepare their patients with too much information about what is to come, and will prefer to deal with the issues as they surface during the days of the post-transplant recovery. 


When I was in the hospital recovering from the bone marrow transplant, I didn’t have the comfort of a recovered patient coming to my bedside to give me the encouragement that gave hope.  I lived from day to day, and prayer and daily Masses celebrated in my hospital room helped me tremendously.  I want my parishioners to be able to go into their transplant hospital rooms with their hopes in such a positive light that they would take any form of suffering in the right light. 


The Catholic Church has just entered into the season of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday yesterday.  The Cross is a strong feature in the liturgical season of Lent, with the praying of the Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent.  What this imparts to us is that in our lives, there is a need to be people who are willing to carry the cross in our lives.  Leukemia is one such cross.  Undoubtedly, there are patients who deem that their afflictions like cancer are burdensome crosses that they are given in life.  But these crosses are not just ours to carry.  In fact, Simon of Cyrene was summoned to help Jesus to carry his cross to Golgotha, and the world knows who Simon is, just because he willingly went up to Jesus to help him carry his instrument of death.  It only takes a change of mindset and the cancer patient will be able to carry his or her cross, knowing that they do not carry the cross alone, but are actually helping Jesus to fulfil the Father’s will.