It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and I was finally getting to spend time with my closest friends — Nguyen, Dmike, and Skyler — over lunch. We were at Dong Phong Vietnamese Restaurant in New Orleans east, and I had ordered my usual Shrimp Vermicelli when the shocking news arrived to us by way of a black plasma-screen television on the wall of the restaurant.
“Oh yeah, I heard John McCain had died.” Nguyen exclaimed.
“Really? What did he die from?” I asked.
“It must have been his brain cancer.” My pupils dilated and my throat sank into my chest. Dmike looked toward Nguyen and me. “You two are science majors; how do people get cancer anyway?”
I kept quiet.
“Cancer is random,” Nguyen explained, being analytical as usual. “It’s a mutation of your cells, but it’s hard to treat in the brain because of the blood-brain barrier. Most people usually just delay the effects and eventually pass.”
“Oh, thank God! My vermicelli is here!” I exclaimed, looking to change the subject as soon as possible. “Let’s eat!”
Later that evening when I got home, I opened my MacBook Pro and searched “John McCain” on Google. One of the first results I found was a letter to McCain from Barack Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 presidential election. As I scrolled down the page, a specific line of the article struck a nerve in me that ran from the center of my chest to the tips of my toes. It read, “Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own.”
He was right, of course. Not many know what it’s like to deal with cancer, especially brain cancer, in the household.
But I did.
My mind raced back to that unexpected and unfortunate morning in September 2017. The night before, I had just finished watching Joseph King of Dreams, falling asleep to the signature song “You know better than I.”
It was 3:30 AM when I heard a scream. I was half asleep and the room was dark, but I knew something was wrong. I ran down the steps of my attic room to discover my mom cowering over my dad, my sister and brother standing next to her. My dad was sitting on the stairs and staring straight forward. I looked at his eyes, but I could tell he did not see me. He was repeatedly grunting, gasping for air, and his arm was twitching. I felt, in that instant, as though I could have been his father and he could have been my son.
“Your father’s having a seizure; I need you to call 911. Edward! Edward!” I ran to get the phone and my sister grabbed onto my mom’s shoulders, encasing her in a maternal-like hug.
It took about 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, but it felt like 20 hours. I helped the paramedics carry my dad to their vehicle. Then we all traveled to the hospital. I eventually made it to physical chemistry class at 9:00 AM
My dad was initially diagnosed with abnormal blood vessels. After a second trip to the hospital, a tumor was discovered.
“God is good all the time. Let’s pray for the best,” my grandparents said.
It took two or three weeks before we found out the tumor was malignant. Thus, my dad underwent brain surgery and began chemotherapy treatment.
The surgery was successful but left my dad crippled. The sensation in and control of one of his arms was severely reduced, and he was left with a stutter and difficulty in producing the words he thought of. I was taking anatomy and physiology at the time, and I assumed the stutter was the result of damage to the primary motor cortex and Broca’s area, which affect voluntary movement and speech formation respectively.
From the time of his surgery to the present, he has had various procedures and treatments and has been in a steady process of recovery. Nevertheless, the severity of the cancerous condition remains subject to change any day, and chemotherapy is a process that my dad, mom, sister, brother, and I, as well as extended family and friends, have all had to adjust to.
Living in a household with a family member who has brain cancer is no easy task. It involves an adjustment of responsibilities for everyone living in the home. My father is limited in his ability to get around his house and his city. My mother, who is a physician at LSU and Tulane medical centers, travels between work and home now more than ever. She and my dad often have to take trips to Duke, UCLA or Baylor medical universities in North Carolina, California, or Texas so that he can get the best treatment cancer centers can provide. This is obviously a huge cost, so financial sacrifices must be made. My sister and I provide a means of travel for my dad wherever he has to go. She often cooks dinner for the family, and my brother and I often perform the yard work and physical tasks my dad cannot do as well as he used to.
Unlike some who suffer from the traumatic effects of brain cancer, my father is very fortunate. He has a family that truly cares about his well-being. That is true not only in the household, but also in the extended family and friendships he has made throughout his life. His best friends call and check on him daily, and we make sure that all his needs are taken care of. Together, we thrive on the ideology that family means nobody gets left behind. It is important that we each lift one another up to the best of our abilities. This means making little sacrifices in our everyday lives so that we can fulfill a greater purpose of love and unity with the people who truly care for us. This is no easy task, and I can attest to that.
Last winter during finals season, my parents had to travel to UCLA for my dad’s treatment. I had to take on all the tasks that were usually my parents responsibilities, as well as study for finals in the intense subjects of physical chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and organic chemistry. I nearly lost my head with stress, but when I finally made it to December 13, when all finals were over and my parents were back home, the break felt that much more worth it.
As Obama put it, it requires a great courage to deal with such terrifying conditions. This is not limited to brain cancer, but anyone dealing with serious disabilities, illnesses, and physical and social oppression. Such conditions require courage not only from the sufferers, but also from anyone who is a part of their daily lives. As a result, we become stronger as a people and more united in love. As long as we are willing to put the needs of our own toward the need for a greater purpose.