The Cancer Patient


By Robin Imran Mahmud

I am currently interning at a hospital in my community.

My role is to help the nurses look after their patients’ needs. My tasks include changing beds, feeding patients, discharging patients, and helping nurses clean the bodies of patients who are in the last stages of their lives.

One day as I was checking on patients to see if there were any in need, I met Beverly – a 70+ cancer patient.

I quickly discovered that Beverly had an extremely grumpy personality. She complained about the hospital – something patients rarely do at this particular hospital – and snapped at me when I offered to help her. When I went to the nurse’s station, I noticed a few people talking about how moody and grumpy Beverly was and I joined in as well. We were all frustrated by how difficult she was.

As my shift progressed, I was asked to help feed Beverly. As I attempted to do so, Beverly maintained her harsh and grumpy tone, making it exceedingly difficult for me to feed her.  I also noticed that she did not remember things easily; she repeatedly asked me about my name and the foods she was eating.  I found out later that on top of her cancer, she has dementia, which is an illness that affects one’s memory. However as things turned out, I happened to stop by her room a few more times towards the end of my shift, which dramatically changed my perception of her.

Randomly, seeing that her TV was still on, I asked her if she liked I Love Lucy, a TV show that would air in an hour. It was amazing how she changed. Her angry facial expression burst into a smile and she replied back excitedly that she loved that show.

I took a seat at her bedside and talked with newfound energy and enthusiasm. I Love Lucy was one of my favorite childhood shows, and I told her all about my favorite episodes. She listened attentively and talked about her favorite shows.

We then delved into her past, her favorite times, including her marriage story. She told me about her childhood, her Catholic high school days, the story of how her husband proposed to her, how they broke up, and how they got back together. I asked her what made her marriage so successful, and she replied that it was successful because of two reasons: sincere love and tender loving care. She then pointed towards the sky, and attributed all the blessings she had in her life and everything to God. She had the hikma, the wisdom, as a sick cancer patient staying at a place she absolutely abhorred, to give Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) the credit for her life’s successes. I was thoroughly moved.

We enjoyed the conversation, even though she would pause every so often to ask my name. Finally, as my shift came to a close and I stood up to say goodbye, she requested that I take down her address and come over someday for lunch or dinner. I did so, looking forward to such a day.

As I drove back home, I reflected upon my encounter with Beverly. Within a few hours, her attitude towards me had changed so much. The charge nurse had also passed by the room and peeked in; she had looked shocked as she saw me conversing with Beverly, and afterwards complimented me with some words that no human being ever said to me.

Subhan’Allah (Glory to God), a few lessons were reinforced.

First, we should never make rash judgments after negative first impressions. Instead, we should give others second chances and make excuses for them. Beverly was grumpy, seemingly filled with hatred and animosity, but inside she was a loving, nice person battling cancer. She was simply alone and needed someone to talk to, someone who would listen to her and connect with her.

Imam Mohammed ibn Faqih of the Islamic Institute of Orange County emphasizes to his congregation the importance of forgiving others, and once shared a beautiful statement in a lecture attributed to Umar ibn al-Khattab: “I indeed know who is the most generous of people and the most tolerant. The most generous is he who shares with who deprives him; the most tolerant of people is who pardons those who wrong him.”

Second, we need to be thankful to Allah (swt) for our minds, health, and intellect. Truly, “And if you should count the favors of Allah, you could not enumerate them.” (Qur’an 16:18). After conversing and spending time with Beverly, I realized how precious our minds are. Having a sound and healthy mind is truly a blessing, and we may at any time succumb to disease or injury that may take this away. Our classical Muslim scholars sometimes used to wear a tassel on their headgear that resembles modern day graduation caps to remind them that Allah (swt) can seize their knowledge at any time.

We must also also keep in mind that as we age, we become more susceptible to memory-related illnesses like dementia, which affects an estimated four to five million people in the United States. Allah (swt) is in full control, but as servants of Allah (swt), we need to do our best to protect ourselves and our minds from things that harm it. Thus, we must eat healthy, exercise, and try our best to reduce stress and anxiety.

Finally, we should reflect on another verse from the Qur’an: “And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as], “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small.” ”(Qur’an 17:23-24)

It is reported in Sahih Bukhari, that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) said that the greatest of sins is ascribing partners to Allah (swt) and being undutiful to parents. This statement applies not only in adolescence, but throughout our entire lives. Islam commands us to take care of our parents just like they took care of us. They would be patient and answer all of our silly questions, time after time. If our parents and elders later develop a memory issue like Beverly, we need to be patient and understanding. We need to be there for them and comfort them as they were there for us.

Even though Beverly was not my parent, she was a respected elder and someone else’s parent, grandparent, aunt, and relative. She connected with me so much, and all I had to do was take a moment to sit down, and listen attentively. One day we might be in Bevelry’s shoes, and all we would desire from this dunya (world) is the comfort of our family. Her dementia is a reminder of the cycle of life, and reinforces the role of one’s children when one reaches that age.

As I headed for the door, Beverly had one more question. This time, I could sense a touch of familiarity as she asked me what my name was. I answered once again with a smile, for a final time – but I smiled with all my heart, as if it were the first time I had been asked, and replied, “My name is Robin.”

She repeated the name one more time to herself softly, and said goodbye.

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15 Comments

  1. Yaqub says:

    As’salaamolaikum. SubhanAllah…reminders come in the most cloaked of forms sometimes.

    Powerful and beautiful.

  2. Maryam says:

    That was so beautiful subhan Allah.

    My grandfather has dementia and he doesn’t remember my name or my mom’s name or almost any of our names. But every time he sees me, he tells me he loves me more than anyone and that I’m better than anyone, that I’m the boss of everyone and that there is no one more beautiful than me.

    And then, when someone asks him, “Do you know who this is?” He says, “Um…. Are you…[insert name]” and I say, “No, babajon.” And he keeps guessing until finally, I tell him, “Babajon, I’m your granddaughter. I’m Maryam.” And then he says, “oh no! I forgot! Maryam!! I love you soooooo much! More than anyone! You’re the best!” And then he starts over again. And then, within a few minutes, he again forgets my name.

    subhan Allah, he used to be a high-ranking political official who made executive decisions for a country. Now, he’s my babajon who has a hard time remembering who I am. It’s from the ayaat of Allah. subhan Allah.

    He is 95 years old subhan Allah. May Allah have mercy on our elders. Please, keep him and our family in your dua.

    • Shazana says:

      Salam Maryam,

      Subhanallah what a coincidence. My grandfather also has dementia, and im one of three people he recognizes and always smiles at when we come over. I love him so much. But he cannot speak; as dementia took over his body he lost the ability to speak or remember us. Similarly, he was an extremely hardworking person who solehandedly supported up his children monetarily. My grandma is now helping him witht he aid of a domestic helper. May Allah reward them and those helping these kind of patients in the best of terms. I understand you sis, just wanted to say Allah is always there for us. Will definitely keep you and everyone of the Ummah in my du’a. Love ya. :)

      • K.Khan says:

        SubhanAllah!

        My grandmom is like that. She is totally bedridden. She can hardly hear us anymore. She can’t say a word nor does she understand most of the things. But a few days ago, when her very own grandson and granddaughter had a baby boy, and someone shouted that out in her ear, she gave a wide smile and tried to move her lips/mouth. She understood that she was a great grand mom mashAllah! :)

  3. saima says:

    absolutely beautiful! i really needed this reminder so JazakAllah for sharing may allah reward you!

  4. Yasmin says:

    Mashallah, this was such a beautiful and heart warming post!

  5. Sis says:

    subhan’Allah, the hospital is indeed a place full of reminders. they always remind me of the ayah below and also of how, no matter how much we feel we are in control, all power belongs to Allah alone

    [36:68] And he to whom We grant long life We reverse in creation; so will they not understand?

  6. fatima says:

    maashaa`alaah, that was amazing, may allah subxaanahu watacalaa reward you, we all need a reminder all the time. thanks.

  7. Juliana Jaffar says:

    MasyaAllah. SubhanAllah. This is beautiful. Thank you for the reminder. May Allah s.w.t reward you :)

  8. Toseef says:

    Mash’Allah a beautifully told story! Sometimes I wonder, how on earth can we grow up to be ungrateful to our parents? May we be kept sincere and obedient to our parents by His grace, and may Allah shower his mercy on them. Ameen

  9. muslima says:

    beautiful post masha’Allah! JazakAllahu khair!

  10. Ismail says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. May Allah increase you in your ability to constantly reflect and then share your reflections with us to remind and benefit us. Ameen.

  11. Robin Mahmud says:

    JazakAllahukhairan . May Allah accept.

  12. Ahmed says:

    This was really beautiful and as I newly qualified (not yet practicing) doctor, it hit home for me, as I hope I can show mercy and understanding to patients that I will encounter in the future years to come.

    Jazak’Allahu Khairan for this insightful and educational piece Br. Robin.

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