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Cancer respects neither age nor position. One has only to visit a cancer hospital to realise how indiscriminate the choice of its victims is. Or read recent revelations by royalty. 

The public announcement by Catherine, Princess of Wales, that she has been diagnosed with an unspecified cancer is at one level heartrending. She is 42 years old, a loving wife and a devoted mother of three. At another level, by appeasing the ravenous press, she is paying the price for marrying into the fishbowl of royalty.

With an almost Shakespearean irony, her 75 year old father-in-law King Charles III has also been diagnosed with cancer. The House of Windsor is two steps closer to becoming a hospice.

In 2011, the same year that Prince William and Kate Middleton married, the billionaire Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer. Famously, he said that ‘being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me’, adding the truism, ‘the most precious resource we all have is time’. Unconsciously, Jobs echoed the sentiments of the dying Queen Elizabeth I: ‘All my possessions for a moment of time’.

Over the centuries between the first and second Elizabethan ages, the British monarchy has usually applied the drip-feed system of information about itself. Paid to lead public lives, their personal lives (however salacious) remained private, off limits.

For instance, Queen Mary is remembered as an elderly dowager, dripping with jewels. Few knew that, while her husband George V was ill, she slept for a week with her wig tied in place because her hairdresser was on leave.

Or that in 1936, she ensured that his ‘peaceful end’ was accelerated with a morphine injection, to catch the serious morning papers instead of the less desirable afternoon editions.      

Commanding as a queen, to her six children Queen Mary could be cold, aloof and unapproachable. The youngest – an epileptic – she kept hidden from view in Sandringham. 

Queen Mary came from a long-lived family. Her grandmother died aged 91, her aunt at 94, and her uncle at 93. She herself died aged 85. Her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II inherited strong genes. Elizabeth’s mother died at the age of 101, her maternal grandmother at 75, and grandfather at 89. That genetic longevity may be withheld from the present House of Windsor.

In Pakistan, it took the death of a mother to bring cancer to the forefront of the public’s awareness. In the 1980s, Imran Khan’s mother Shaukat Khanum was diagnosed with colon cancer. Disappointed with the facilities available in local hospitals, he took her abroad for treatment.

His resolve to build a facility in Pakistan for cancer patients who could not afford equivalent treatment here was cemented by one incident – the sight of an elderly distraught Pathan in Mayo Hospital. His sick brother lay in the corridor of the crowded hospital. To pay for his brother’s medicines, the man had to labour daily at a nearby construction site.  

Today, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centres founded by Imran Khan in memory of his mother (she died in 1985), have two state-of-the-art tertiary care cancer hospitals in Lahore and Peshawar with a third - the largest - currently in an advanced stage of construction in Karachi. The efficiency of their organisation, their facilities and the medical attention patients receive – whether fee-paying or free – are more than legendary. They are a reality.

Cancer is not like an appendectomy: here today, gone tomorrow. It requires continuous treatment and monitoring to detect recurrence. The Shaukat Khanum hospitals received almost 14,500 new cancer patients last year. In addition, they have over 30,000 patients on active follow-up for a period of up to five years following treatment. Over 75% of all patients in the SKMTH system are treated entirely free of charge, funded by Zakat and donations.

Each patient is a helpless victim of a cancer the U.S./Pakistani oncologist Dr Azra Raza calls a ‘motiveless malignity’, just as the hospital itself is often the target of malignant criticism.

If you have the time that Elizabeth I and Steve Jobs were denied, go to the Shaukat Khanum Hospital in Lahore. There, you will meet an Afghan national. He will show you photos of his three children – two boys and a girl, bright faced and smiling, the same ages as William and Kate’s children.

He will then show you an image of his once beautiful wife. Because she is undergoing treatment free for leukaemia, involving a complete blood replacement, they have not seen their children for three years.  If you wait, you will then see her emerge from the recovery room - an emaciated living corpse.

She is, in Maulana Rumi’s words, neither hair, nor skin – only a soul that lives within.



DAWN, 28 March 2024

28 March 2024
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