On October 5, I wrote Steve Jobs’ Death and the Spectre of Cancer in Cambodia. At the time, I was saddened by the “news” that Sopheak’s aunt had died of cancer and we were sending her body back to Svay Renh for burial. As it turned out, that was a little premature. What my wife was trying to convey to me was that her aunt was dying of cancer and wanted to return to her home village to die.
It was several days before I learned this subtle distinction. Sometimes verb tenses can make a big difference! One day I went downstairs to make a cup of coffee and was surprised to see her lying down on our living room couch. She was alive, but just barely. It was pissing down with rain and we didn’t want to pack her into a car and send her on her way when there was a danger of flooding, so we put her up in our doctor’s clinic for the weekend, so she could be more comfortable and could be on a fluid drip, since she had stopped eating.
Our doctor recommended sending her first to a Russian hospital in Phnom Penh. He was sure she was dying, but thought a biopsy was in order and she could get one for free there. On Monday, October 10, Sopheak took her to the hospital. It was an incredibly stressful trip because when she arrived, Sopheak learned that while her aunt could get a biopsy for free, she first had to provide the hospital with papers and a doctor referral. Sopheak put her and her husband up in a hotel, returned home, got up at dawn the next morning and spent half the day gathering the necessary paperwork before returning to Phnom Penh in the evening.
The next day everything went smoothly. As my first paragraphs show, details get lost in the translation, but according to Sopheak, “Doctor say if have 1-5, can give medicine. If more, maybe not work. He say she have 10. Take medicine will kill sure.” The medicine he was referring to was chemotherapy.
I was relieved to hear this, because I had already become all but convinced that chemotherapy was essentially a con. Although we believed that both the biopsy and the treatment were free, if she accepted the treatment, I felt like I would be partially responsible for her death, since she would never have gone to the hospital without my assistance. As it turned out, the medication was not free, but the doctor told Sopheak it would be a waste of money and she would probably die before she reached Svay Renh. He said the best course to take would be to send her home to die and that’s what Sopheak did.
The next thing I heard was that Sopheak’s aunt was so weak, the relatives in Svay Renh decided to build a funeral pyre for her. Because of the flooding in Svay Renh, they had to build an elevated platform. At one point, Sopheak received a call telling her that she had died, but they called back a few hours later and said they had made a mistake. Her pulse had been undetectable and there was no sign of breathing, but she then came to.
That was about 3 weeks ago. Until yesterday, I heard nothing more except that relatives had found a “Cambodia doctor” (meaning a traditional practitioner). Then, out of the blue, yesterday Sopheak informed me that her aunt was feeling much better and was coming back to Sihanoukville.
I got up this morning to find her washing our clothes. I tried to stop her, but she insisted on working, telling me through Sopheak that it was her way of thanking us for our help and that she was feeling much better. I have no idea what the “medicine” is that she is taking. Sopheak tells me it is a plant that grows in Picnel (sp?), a hilly region about halfway between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.
Sopheak’s aunt isn’t exactly the picture of health. Her skin is yellow and she is still very thin, but she’s smiling, eating and working a little. As soon as I get a chance I’m going to take some photos and try to find out more about her medicine.
I have to close now, but just for the record, while this drama was unfolding, I signed up to listen to a series of talks by alternative cancer treatment specialists. They were free to listen to live, but in order to get them to keep, you had to pay. I listened to a few of them and they were fascinating. This morning I finally paid for the whole series and downloaded them. I figured serendipity was at work. I’ll get back to you with info as I get time to review the audio files and read the PDF transcripts.