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When Hello becomes Goodbye: a touching story on prostate cancer

Dr. Akin-Onitolo A.

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Chuma met fear the day his father nearly died, the strangeness of it made his insides twist. It felt otherworldly to witness how the iron fisted old man was reduced to humbling anguish; clutching and unclutching his privates, he swore that the pain was too much.
Confused and afraid, Chuma carried him to the clinic on the next street; shrunken frame, urine stench and all. He used up his last cash, what was left from his bet on the football game he had abandoned, to purchase the yellow tube that brought relief and restored his father’s dignity.
He knew varied things happened when people got old, yet he felt ill-prepared. He had assumed his father’s now quiet personality and irritating new habit of using the toilet every hour was all there would be.
Waiting in the reception while his parents were further questioned, he fiddled with the mole on his chin and looked over the room, his gaze settling on a picture. It was a confusing combination of a half penis with some balloons connected by wires. The letters were illegible save for the title – The Male Reproductive System.
Glancing at the nurse, he wondered if it was not uncomely to stare at another man’s underparts. He tried to focus instead on the holes in the opposite seat but his eyes strayed back until a vibration in his pocket claimed his attention. He cleared his throat. It was his brother.
“Hello.”
“My guy.”
“Na so we see am. They’re attending to him now.”
“He suddenly could not pass urine. Back pain today, chest pain tomorrow, always coughing.”
“Of course, I’ll let you know.”
“Later.”
Restless, Chuma decided to check on the progress of the interview.
“Yes, he has lost weight. See how he swims in his clothes,” he heard his mother say as he approached, her words shadowed by a sorrowful moan. She grabbed his arm when he walked in, her fear hanging like a cloud over them both.
The doctor emerged from behind a blue clothed metal contraption peeling off a brown stained glove, grim-faced.
“Come with me,” he said.
Son and mother shuffled after the grey-haired man. He ushered them into a small room at the end of the hall. The pale yellow walls reminded Chuma of the rubber tube which was split like a Y at the bottom. He had watched his father’s urine dribble from it.
When they were seated, the doctor broke the news without preamble.
“Papa most likely has cancer of the prostate.”
It took a moment for ‘cancer’ to register. His mother exploded in tears. Stunned, Chuma sat very still, beads of sweat bunched on his head.
How did being unable to urinate become cancer? His father did not even have a swollen stomach like the pathetic woman from the next block who had died from cancer the year before. What even is a prostate? He tried to ask but his voice was lost. He sniffled once. Twice. He rubbed his nose vigorously.
“Be a man!” he admonished himself. What he wanted most to do was fling a chair through the window. Instead, he wrapped one arm around his mother’s shoulder, the other clenched in his lap.
“It seems to have spread. That would explain his cough and back pain. He’ll need to have some tests and biopsy to know what kind of treatment would work best. I would advice you go to UNTH because they have the facilities.”
His heart skipped into his mouth. Everyone knew no one returned alive from that hospital.
“Papa is going to die?” he croaked.
“It’s not my place to decide who lives or dies. But if he had come earlier, it wouldn’t have gotten this bad.” The doctor looked glum.
“Chai!” Chuma cried, shaking his head as if to a funeral tune.
“Who did we offend?” his mother added in a bitter voice.
“It usually happens to elderly African men, like a genetic disease,” the doctor said.
Suspicion made him frown.
“It can be inherited. Basically, you are also at risk,” the doctor said, addressing Chuma with a pregnant look.
The room suddenly became stuffy. Chuma rose sharply, dripping sweat.
“Mama, let’s go,” he said, trying to hide his trembling.
“Is there no medicine we can use?” his mother asked.
“The tests would determine if he would need drugs or surgery. But for now, he’ll have to use the tube to pass urine. I would give you a letter to UNTH and some pain medicine.”
Chuma was already at the door.
His father stood behind it, eyes wide with fear, seconds before collapsing to the ground in a heap of skin and bones.

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Dr. Akin-onitolo A. is a graduate of the University of Lagos whose mission is to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) using health promotion and improved health literacy. She is an MDCN (Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria) certified doctor who had her elective at King's College London. Hugely interested in travel, meeting people and generally being creative, reading and writing fiction are a few hobbies you could find her engaged in during her spare time. Catch up with her on Twitter @Akinonitolo and Instagram @t_onitolo