When I was thirty-one years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember sitting alone in a private room in the doctor’s office before they gave me the news, waiting nervously for my results. I never liked being in medical clinics. When they walked in and spoke those wretched words that I had always feared, somehow thinking they could never be uttered about me, I froze. I felt as if my spirit had been severed from my body, suddenly hyper aware of my environment and trying to block out what I had just heard – did the doctor’s office always smell like berry-scented soap? The specialists brought me back to reality when they told me that although many victims from my family had suffered from the disease, my case was not due to a hereditary gene. They told me I was simply unlucky.
I walked in circles on that sidewalk outside the Vancouver clinic in the rain, hoping the drops would camouflage the tears in my eyes so that my husband wouldn’t see my sorrow when he picked me up before I could tell him what had happened myself. Minutes passed that seemed like hours, and I saw our SUV pull up to the curb at the corner of the street. My legs shook as I walked to the car, pulling the door open with an equally shaky hand and taking a seat.
My husband looked at me. “You’re soaking wet,” he said to me in Farsi. “Did you forget to take an umbrella?”
“Yes,” I replied. I opened my mouth, and quickly shut it again, pausing. How do I tell him?
“Is everything okay, Arezoo? You look pale.” Now that was something else I never thought I’d hear. My skin had always been a dark, dusty brown the colour of yam skins.
I looked at him hesitantly, searching for the right words – there were none. I uttered the same words that had been said to me a mere half-hour before. His lips quivered as he told me in whispers that we would do whatever it took to help me get better. I cried.
That night was the first night that I almost went to bed without praying since I was a little girl, living in my parents’ home. My father, may he rest in peace, had taught me the importance of enriching our souls through displays of devotion to Allah, showing Him how much we desire to be with Him. It became a part of me, as habitual as getting up in the morning and brushing my teeth. Every time I felt blessed in life, I expressed it through prayers, and whenever I felt sorrow, I also displayed my yearning to Allah. But that night, something felt different. After visiting the doctor, I did not feel like myself. I sat down on my bed, staring at my prayer rug, tracing the floral designs of its border with my eyes. My six-year-old daughter loved those flowers. I began to think of her, playing with her dolls in her room before bed. Most days, I would sit with her and play along. I thought about never being able to do that again. Maybe He was testing my strength, my faith.
With that in mind, I got off the bed and knelt on my rug, feeling the fabric tickle the tips of my toes. I prostrated, and began my melodic chanting. Even in pain, it felt welcoming.
My treatments started as soon the doctor could schedule me an appointment, beginning with a surgery to remove the growth from my breast. Once the lump had been separated from my body, I began hormonal therapy, and eventually, my doctor and I decided it was time to try chemotherapy. For me, that procedure was the hardest of all.
I always had a lot of hair. When I was young, my mother used to have to help me tie it all back because my little hands were too weak to hold it all up long enough to stretch an elastic band around the locks. I had lost some of the mane through my pregnancy, but nevertheless, what I was left with was an abundance of chocolate-brown curls. As the chemotherapy sessions continued, however, my ringlets began to fall, strand by strand. They covered our hardwood floors, and I had to clean off my prayer rug of their trace every night. Not too long after, I started to see bald spots form. My daughter, now eight years old, pointed out that my head was ‘shiny’, which was her way of saying that she could see parts of my scalp without hurting my feelings. We didn’t tell her very much about my procedures or what was wrong. All she knew at that point was that I wasn’t feeling well, and the appointments I went to were supposed to make me feel better. I continued to accompany her and play with dolls before bed, and to her that confirmed that her mom was just fine. She just had a little less hair than before.
Eventually, so many of my curls had fallen out that sections of my head just looked as if they were covered in peach fuzz. It looked disheveled and badly kept. One night before I prayed, I was staring at myself in the mirror, and my frustration took over. I reached for my husband’s electric trimmer and shaved off what was left of my once luscious hair, wrapping the bareness with a bandana. I washed my hands and splashed my face with water before heading to my rug to pray. That night, I remember sobbing in my sleep.
I stayed at home the next day. I only worked part-time because I needed rest, and usually on my days off I went for walks to get some fresh air, but after shaving off my ringlets I didn’t want to leave the house. I felt bare and empty, as if any grasp I had on my life before I was diagnosed, any part of me that was clinging to my existence prior to this had let go when I watched the remainder of my curls hit the floor.
When my husband opened the door after picking our daughter up from school, she ran to my side, holding a gift-bag. A wide smile stretched across her face – she wore happiness nicely. I grinned back at her.
“How was school today, dear?”
She quickly told me about a science experiment her teacher had demonstrated in class, and about the games she played during her lunch break, anxiously getting to the end of her story.
“Mommy, I have something for you!” She held the gift-bag towards me with both hands.
I took it from her. “What’s this?”
“It’s something to make you look pretty,” she said. “I heard you crying last night. Daddy told me you had no hair anymore. I know you love your hair, Mommy, so we bought this for you.”
I lifted the tissue paper out of the bag, placing it on the couch beside me. My daughter stared at me in excitement, her eyes wide with anticipation, eagerly waiting for my reaction. Inside the bag was a short, copper-coloured wig.
My eyes filled with tears. I looked at my husband and then smiled back at my daughter. “For me?”
She nodded. “I picked the colour myself!”
I hugged her tightly and thanked my husband. From that day on, I didn’t leave the house without it. I only took it off to pray, and that night, I prayed for my daughter.
After nearly a decade of treatments and consistent weekly checkups with my doctor, I had begun to lose hope of ever healing. My condition was stable, and I thanked God for that every day, but it seemed like these visits and procedures would carry on routinely for as long as I continued to live.
One morning, I was walking to the doctor’s office for my regular checkup. The air was a bit crisp, but the sun was starting to creep out from behind the clouds, so it was a pleasant stroll. Just like every other visit, I walked through the glass doors of the high-rise, taking the elevator to the fifth floor, and went into office, greeting the secretary before taking a seat in the waiting room. When it was my turn to see the doctor, I walked past the front desk and into the same room they always assigned to me.
I didn’t have to wait long before the doctor walked into the room. In her hands, she held a single red rose, which she offered to me.
“Well, that’s sweet,” I said, wondering if I had forgotten an important date or event that I probably shouldn’t have. I had been living in Vancouver for over ten years at that point, but I stilled lived in a bit of an Iranian bubble. “What’s this for?”
I was cancer-free. I finally felt free.
The first thing I did was call my daughter. At first, she spoke sharply over the phone in hushed tones, telling me I had just caused her phone to ring in the middle of class at university. I completely disregarded any negativity she had and told her the good news, and she squealed in excitement. I heard voices shushing her in the background and chuckled to myself. She chuckled as well, apologizing to the instructor. I told her to get back to her studies and that we would talk about it once she got home for dinner.
Then, I called my husband. When I told him that I didn’t have cancer anymore, the phone went silent. I was a little disappointed; I thought he would be screaming with joy, just like our daughter did. I waited for him to say something, anything. Then, through the silence I heard it – he was so relieved that he had started to cry.
When I got home, I kicked off my shoes, and ran to the bathroom to remove my wig, giving it a quick brush. I washed my hands and splashed my face, taking a good look at myself in the mirror, smiling. When the reality really sunk in that I was finally healthy, I went to pray with a warm heart this time instead of pain. I prostrated, thanking God for His mercy. Once I finished chanting, I jumped into my bed. Finally, I could relax. After ten years of only half-sleeping at night, I had a lot to catch up on and I did not want to lose a moment of it. I would rest until my family got home so we could share a celebratory meal. Now that I had all the time in the world, there was nothing holding me back from a good sleep.
Fifteen years passed by in good health. Sometimes I had nightmares about chemotherapy and my hair falling out curl by curl, but I would wake up in the mornings, feel the short ringlets that had started to re-grow on my head, and I thanked God every time, feeling blessed. I thanked Him five times each day for the grey ringlets on my head, and for positive results each time I went to the clinic for a checkup with the specialist, which had now been reduced to once every four or five months. My doctor and I had bonded throughout the years, however, and we made sure to make plans to see each other for lunch weekly on Fridays at a café between her office and my downtown apartment.
One week, she called me, asking if she could see me. It was a Monday so we did not have anything planned, but I enjoyed my time with her and willingly obliged, assuming she would be busy with work that coming Friday. We were going to meet at our regular spot. She knew I liked routines. I chose to take the bus over to the café because it looked like it was going to rain, and I’d lent my umbrella to my granddaughter. My daughter was now thirty-three and married with a child of her own. I babysat for her once a week, and my granddaughter liked the designs on my umbrella, so I said she could take it to school.
When I got off the bus, it was just starting to drizzle. My doctor – my friend – was sitting on a bench outside, waiting for me. She looked up when she heard me walking towards her, biting her lip nervously.
“Are you alright, dear?” I said to her.
She nodded without making eye contact, giving me a tight hug. We walked into the café and sat by the windows once we had ordered our tea and pastries. She kept avoiding my eyes.
I reached over to her. “Really, dear, is everything okay?”
She finally looked at me. “Arezoo, I’m so sorry – you’re cancer is back.”
I stared at her, unable to think. Was this some kind of joke? I just kept staring.
“I’m so sorry. Your results from your last test came in. It’s back, and it spread like wildfire to your lungs and your brain…they’ve given you a month.”
There wasn’t much I could do at that point, except enjoy the time I had left. I started adjusting my will, spending nights by the fireplace with my husband, and visiting my daughter as often as I could. I continued to pray five times a day, thanking God for the time He had granted me, thanking Him for the warning, for a good family and thoughtful friends. I thanked Him for creating me as someone who had faith, who could embrace her inevitable fate better than most.
I started to leave my wig behind on most days. My body had started to swell and my ankles grew weak. By the time the month was coming to an end, I could barely remember street names anymore, or which side was left and which was right. I tried to be as independent as I could, even on those last days. I still tried to pray five times a day. I fumbled with the words sometimes, and once I started while facing the wrong way, but I was determined to stick to my routine.
Finally, the day came. I knew when I woke up that it would be my last – there was a sinking feeling in my stomach, and mustering up the energy to speak was difficult. Breathing wasn’t easy, either. I asked my husband to book a private room for me, where I could pass on in peace, at ease. I didn’t want to be in a clinic or a hospital. I never liked those places, and dying didn’t change that one bit. I was the same woman I had always been, just a little closer to Allah now than before.
If I’m honest, I don’t remember much of that final day. There were a couple beeping machines, one giving me oxygen and the other tracking my heart rate. My husband and daughter sat in the room as I was lying on the bed, just waiting, barely holding on. They sat there for hours, trying to crack the occasional joke but bursting into tears and having to excuse themselves. I felt sad for them. I didn’t want to leave them behind.
When it started to get dark outside, my breaths started to grow short and scarce, but I could feel my body clinging to life like the curls on my head used to hold on to what the days were like before this all happened. My daughter saw me struggling. I could tell it was hurting her to see me that way.
She sat beside me, holding my hand, and leaned over to my ear to whisper, “It’s okay, Mom. You can let go.”
I cannot tell you where I went – you would have to experience it for yourself. But I can tell you I got the answer to my prayers.