It was summer of 2011 when I got the call. I unassumingly answered it while I was checking emails.
"Jasmine?" said the voice. It was my mom from India; she could barely speak and I could tell she was in tears.
After I asked, "Mom, are you OK?" for the third time, she said, "I am diagnosed with ovarian cancer!"
My mom had been complaining on and off about abdominal bloating and pain. Three months before I received that call, she mentioned the symptoms for the second time and I suggested that she see a doctor. She did; however, it happened to be an Ayurveda "doctor", a practitioner of holistic medicine.
"I feel much better after taking the herbal medication", she said. I insisted that she go to a real doctor but she refused.
Ovarian cancer is an insidious disease and nearly all of its symptoms can be dismissed as something benign. As a result, none of us realized what she was dealing with. While I was not happy with her choice of treatment, I let it slide in an effort to keep peace.
By the time she finally agreed to see a doctor, she was in stage 3 and her cancer antigen (CA-125) was at 496; the normal value is less than 35. The cancer cells had spread to her ovaries, peritoneum and the surface of her liver. She underwent a complicated procedure within days. The surgery was successful. We thought the nightmare was over, but in some ways it was only beginning.
I grew up in a somewhat non-conforming Muslim family. My mom was the most religious person in the house. She fasted sometimes during Ramadan and read Quran occasionally. Being raised in an upper-middle class family in India is a unique experience. While my mom talked about Islam at home, I went to a private Catholic school, and most of my friends were Hindus.
At a very young age I started grappling with the religious differences that I was constantly exposed to. Critical thinking eventually led me to become an atheist. However, I was alone in that pursuit and the rest of my family continued with their belief system.
I wanted to do everything I could to support her. This became a little challenging when she said, "God heard my prayers and watched over me during the surgery. Will you pray for my recovery?"
Some of the family members plunged right in to provide that spiritual support. Among other things, they went to a mosque at 5 a.m. to participate in prayers. The fact that the prayers were in Arabic, a language they could not understand, did not dampen their spirits. While I did not partake, I did not stop anyone from embracing their renewed faith.
She endured her six cycles of chemo therapy. The side effects were brutal and she was in a lot of pain, but she believed there was someone higher up looking out for her. In early 2012, the test showed that her CA-125 came down to 6.2. I was so happy to hear the news and I thanked her oncologist. Everyone else's faith went up a notch.
Months passed and a semblance of normal life returned but it was short lived. A routine test in fall 2012 revealed that her CA-125 was at 38. My mom couldn't reconcile why this was happening to her. I tried to explain the relapse rate in ovarian cancer patients, but that's not what she wanted to hear. She wanted to know why god was punishing her again. I didn't have an answer.
The oncologist resumed her chemo for another six cycles and it was beginning to take a toll on her body. "Why me, god?" was something that she uttered on a daily basis.
She became miserable and her spirits slowly crumbled. This is what happens when someone believes that everything in life is orchestrated by a supreme being, and that if you played by his rules then he will protect you.
It was painful to see what she was going through, and one day when she said "Why me?"
I snapped. "Why should anyone? What do you think toddlers who get cancer did to deserve that?" I asked.
She didn't answer, but I could tell she was hurt. I felt horrible, but wanted her to realize that she was a good person and nobody was punishing her.
The chemo was over and she started to recover physically and psychologically. She even told me that she reflected on what I said and realized that nobody "deserves" cancer. She did well until summer 2013 when it relapsed for the second time. Her symptoms worsened and she could barely walk at this point. To make things worse, she had fluids that accumulated in her abdomen that caused intense discomfort. However when removed, it caused significant pain, vomiting and within weeks it accumulated again. It was a catch 22 situation and there was no way to ease her pain.
One day as I sat there holding her hand, I asked her if there was anything that could be done to make her feel better. She said, "I want god to take away this cancer and instead give me something that would let me die with dignity".
I tried but didn't really know how to comfort her. I sent my mom's medical records to another oncologist in San Francisco. She agreed with every decision that my mom's oncologist had made in the past. She also said the probability of any meaningful sustained response to chemotherapy would be 10 percent at best.
My mom was a brave woman who agreed to continue with the battle. Her oncologist put her on another chemo treatment, followed by another until summer 2014. Her condition worsened and she was forced to go off of all medication. She passed away during the Ramadan season which was her last wish. I was devastated and when I tried to console my dad, he asked, "Would you pray for her soul?"