Memoir: Muslim Canadian Congress Founder Tarek Fatah on being both a cancer patient and a survivor
In my life, I’d been run over by a car and survived two jail terms as a political prisoner. If cancer was going to kill me, I was at least going to have the last laugh
It was just another blistering cold February afternoon as I walked from my home in Cabbagetown to my desk at NewsTalk 1010 at Yonge and St. Clair. I was engrossed in the news of the day, mulling over the issues I’d be debating with my co-host, Ryan Doyle, on the nightly show Friendly Fire. I remember mumbling something to myself as I walked past the Tamil grocery store on Parliament Street, before sensing a sneeze coming on. It was the sneeze that would change my life forever.
A sharp electrical current shot from the base of my spine down the back of my legs to my heels, paralyzing me for a moment. I moved my hand to feel my back, wondering if I’d been hit by something—maybe a branch or a stone. Everything felt okay. Hesitatingly, I made an attempt to walk and was relieved to discover I could.
That night on the show, I was not my usual combative self. Doyle was getting away with his outlandish right-wing rhetoric and, surprisingly, it didn’t matter to me. Try as I might, I was not up for a battle of ideas. I had a feeling something serious had happened to my 61-year-old body.
The next morning, I had difficulty getting out of bed. When the time came to leave for the radio station, I couldn’t walk and had to call in sick. At 4 a.m. the following morning, when I could no longer feel my legs, my wife, Nargis, persuaded me to call an ambulance.
At St. Mike’s, hospital staff drew blood, took X-rays and poked a pin all over my lower body to record sensations. After an MRI, I was finally called into a room for a chat with the doctors. Before the neurologist spoke a single word, he reached across the table and took the coffee cup from my hand. “You need to have an empty stomach so we can operate,” he said. “A cancerous tumour has collapsed on your spinal cord, and it’s rapidly damaging your nervous system below the waist.”
“This is no way to be sick,” remarked a prominent imam who, on a visit to the hospital, caught me balancing a cricket ball on my forehead
A deadly silence ensued. The doctors stared straight at me. “How sure are you the tumour is cancerous?” sobbed Nargis. The senior doc’s answer was curt, but proper. “Mrs. Fatah, we are certain about the cancer; we feel it has metastasized on the spine, but we’re not sure about its origin. We need to operate as soon as possible.”
Nargis looked at me and broke down. “You promised you wouldn’t die before me, Tarek. What will I do without you?” I tried to make her laugh. “Cheer up, love,” I said. “I have a decent life insurance policy, and being bald is in style.”
After the surgery, my family and I waited anxiously for doctors to inform us of the nature of the cancer. Then came the bad news: preliminary results showed that the disease had spread to my bone marrow. At this point, I resigned myself to dying peacefully, but I didn’t share that with anyone.
I’d had a turbulent and eventful life. When I was 10 months old, I was run over by the family car, both my legs crushed. I spent a year in a body cast that left marks I still carry 60 years later. At age three, I nearly drowned in the family swimming pool, but was rescued by our Pashtun chauffeur, whom I loved more than any member of my family and still miss. I have been to prison twice as a political activist, lived in three countries, toured 35 others and fulfilled my dream of becoming a published author. If this was my time to go, I wasn’t going to complain.
Then, when all seemed lost, a miracle happened. The next day, my hematologist, Martina Trinkaus, came into my room. “Mr. Fatah, if you autograph your book for me, I’ll share some good news,” she said. I grinned and nodded a polite yes. “The cancer has not spread to your bone marrow; it is localized.” She explained that I would need three months of chemotherapy, followed by a month of radiation, and finally physiotherapy to learn how to walk again. “And the cancer?” I asked. “Is it curable?”
“It is. You leave that to us,” she said, giving me the thumbs-up.
I was jubilant (or as jubilant as a near paraplegic can be). As scores of visitors came to see me in the hospital, I was astonished to discover that they expected me to be despondent. People were scandalized by my upbeat behaviour. How dare I sit and enjoy a televised cricket match when they’d come to pay their sombre condolences? Apparently I didn’t know the etiquette of illness.
Once, when a few buddies and I were engaged in a heated debate about the Arab Spring, some other friends—a husband and wife—arrived to pray for me. When I refused to interrupt the discussion, they left, offended. A prominent imam who caught me balancing a cricket ball on my forehead remarked, “This is no way to be sick.” Another day, as a nurse was removing staples from my back—a procedure she’d warned would be extremely painful—a Canadian friend, just back from Cairo, ate oxtail curry and recounted his experience dodging bullets in Tahrir Square. Some Pakistani friends sat visibly uncomfortable in the corner of the room, upset that he wasn’t talking about my illness. I relished the distraction; before I knew it, the nurse had finished her work.
By May, the cancer was in remission. In July, after recovering from radiation therapy, I was shipped to a rehab centre where I would learn to walk again. And finally, on August 10, my 37th wedding anniversary, I was allowed to go home.
Now, after two months as an outpatient, I’m walking with the help of a walker. I recently walked 150 metres in six minutes—a major milestone in physiotherapy land, the point of no return. I’m expected to walk on my own by Christmas.
Feeling bold at the end of my 150 metres, I asked my therapist if I could kick a small pylon sitting in the middle of the floor. “I haven’t kicked anything in eight months,” I said. I swung my leg, and the pylon sailed across the room. It felt so good.
Tarek Fatah is the author of The Jew Is Not My Enemy and the founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress.
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