Friday, February 10, 2006

Is Ignorance bliss?

There's this strange thing with a lot of Indian families that I know. They refuse to talk about disease and illness.

I do not mean the everyday cough and cold and associated silly things. That they love to discuss. Anytime you ask someone how they're doing they will launch a huge monologue about how sick they've been and how weak they feel and how distressful everything around them is. You ask any Bengali "kemon achhen" (how are you) and you get an "aar bolben na....." (don't even begin to ask....). But this post is about a different kind of illness. You know something major. Like heart disease or cancer. Especially cancer. Somehow the thought of something really fatal afflicting them seems unpalatable and unacceptable to most Indian families. So they just block the thought. They refuse to find out more and they refuse to talk about it. Take the example of RD, a distant uncle of ours. He started losing weight and had this terrible pain in his tummy for sometime before he went to see the doctor. After a lot of investigations, labs and ultrasounds and CT scans he was diagnosed with cancer. Now everytime I'd enquire about what the specific diagnosis was, everyone in RD's family would just clamp up. It was like this real secret hush-hush thing that people refused to talk about. I understand that the family goes into denial and that it is hard to accept something like this. But guys, there are treatment options and the better informed you are, the better your chances of finding a way out. To cut a long story short, RD pased away last year with very little treatment done to alleviate his condition and us still not knowing what he had been diagnosed with. Was it his liver, pancreas, stomach, colon? And I try telling everyone that it is better to know because then you are better prepared for what may be in store. For example there are genes that predispose you to a certain kind of cancer. I know that recognizing that I am genetically predisposed for a particlar kind of cancer will not stop me from getting the disease, but it can save my life. I can have regular check ups to catch it sooner and get it out while it might not be too late to do anything.

I know people who refuse to go see a doctor for annual check ups for the fear of finding out some hidden disease. They tell me, they'd rather not know. Is this crazy or what? Why are people so scared of finding the truth about their bodies? Wouldn't you rather know early and be able to treat it than be diagnosed with something fatal much later when there is no going back? And why are people so secretive about their illness. Wouldn't you want your family to know that you have a particular disease so that they can get a genetic screen done to check out if they are at a higher risk of getting the same? I guess which is why there are still people in India suffering and dying from diseases that could have been diagnosed and treated early. I had an uncle in his forties who died from malignant malaria, a cousin who was in her teens who died from hepatitis B, an aunt in her fifties who had ovarian cancer and an uncle in his fifties who died of some mysterious cancer of the abdomen that we have no clue whatsoever. All people I knew and cared about. All of them died prematurely. And all these deaths could have been prevented, had they been diagnosed and treated a little early.

And yet, people still turn a blind eye to early diagnosis and prevention. They live their lives pretending that nothing bad could ever happen to them. And refusing to have an annual check up done for the fear of being diagnosed with some disease that they were unaware of. I find that frustrating.

Ignorance is bliss? Not always. Definitely not always.



Blogger thorswheels said...

How true. Bongs are genetically afflicted with pet jaala (or ombol) and they will go to vulgar lengths discussing it but shirk from talking about serious ailments. I can almost picture the hush that descends on elders of the family discussing them.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Kumari said...

My dad hated spending money on annual checkups. He never took one for the past 5 years inspite of me and mom begging him. And it came back to bite us when last year he had a heart attack(on their wedding anniv) and had to undergo bypass surgery.3 of his major arteries were clogged.

And i was stuck in USA. They hid it from me for almost a month and then slowly made me visit India under some pretext. Imagine my shock when i land up all chirpy to see my dad in bed, half the man he used to be.

Sometimes, I wish parents would just stop being parents and let their kids decide for them. Esp in matters of health.

He is damn healthy now after his surgery. But now i don't believe any phone call :)

12:27 PM  
Blogger Brown Magic said...

I have a similar story to Kumari - my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and my family kept it from me for months. finally they told me she was sick, but kept details vague. it was only when my aunt accidentally said "chemo" around me, did I finally find out.

Family got some serious yelling that day.

Grandma is in her 3rd of remission so yay!

12:58 PM  
Blogger Jinguchakka said...

The logic is why tell someone and make him/her feel bad? Obviously physical suffering cannot be shared and the good thing is atleast not bring mental suffering upon others.

1:32 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ a fool on the hill isn't it weird? Beats me for sure.
@ kumari I know what you mean. My Dad did the same thing but this was when I was still in college. He never did any check ups, got his coronaries blocked, high blood pressure and angina. And the fact that he is a doctor himself and my grandfather who also was a doctor had high blood pressure and two strokes that left him paralyzed. Can you believe that? After that scare and his operation I used to check my dad's BP everynight until I came to the US. Now I can only pester him and hope he is more careful.
But I'm glad your Dad is doing okay now.
@ brown magic yay for modern medicine and how it can give back meaning to life even after things like cancer. I only wish people would be a little more conscious and deal with sickness a little more responsibly.
@ jinguchakka I know that logic because I've heard it so many times. But when you do find out it becomes hard to trust those people again. you constantly worry that may be something is wrong and they are keeping it from you. At least my dad lets me know everything. He emails me with every night with news both good as well as bad.

2:35 PM  
Blogger satchisgod said...

Kothai boley..."ukil aar daktaar ghorey dhokaatey nei". So you know.
And actually what's wrong with sudden deaths? Maybe I've seen too many deaths in my family (it's a huge joint family)...pple come and pple go. I think it's better that way only. Shudhu shudhu daktaar bodyi dekey hyapa baaranor ki dorkaar?

5:01 PM  
Blogger Trevor Penn said...

My grandfather and paternal uncle were both diagnosed with cancer. They didnt survive because the tumor had already spread... If only they got their annual check ups done.. !!!

On the other hand, a very good friend of mine, couldn't survive a relapse at the tender age of 23, inspite of getting all the regular checkups... that was disaster...

5:33 PM  
Blogger Kele Panchu said...

Certain names are not uttered to preserve sanity. For example ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, piles, hernia etc. At the same time there are some aristocratic ones (not just ombol, and pet byatha) that people are proud to have, e.g. any kind of heart disease, diabetes etc. Can you see the marked difference between the upper and lower body parts? We claim we’re the most non-discriminating people in India!

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel ya ! - My parents did the same to my brother and I, since both of us are here. My mom had cancer and was in surgery for a week and they never told us. Finally when my dad told us we had to rush back because she was very critical.

Perhaps I may have gotten to spend more time with her if they had.

12:51 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

What is with parents keeping their illness from their children? So many people who have commented say the same thing, their parents did not tell them how ill they or their family members were! Inspite of living at home, Ive noticed that my mom never really tells me when she is ill, its left for me to figure things out for myself. I dnt know if this silly overprotectiveness is common to parents across the world, but its definitely a very commonplace thing in India...wonder when parents will realize that their kids have grown up and can live with some bad news and some responsiilities.

8:04 AM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

It's odd, sometimes parents won't tell children if one of them is seriously ill and sometimes, if a parent or an elderly person is very seriously ill, children and the rest of the family make sure that the person doesn't find out exactly what s/he is suffering from. When my father was diagnosed with leukemia, I used to stay out of town. I rushed back and was shocked that he didn’t know the exact nature of his own illness. Later, after discussing it with everyone, when I told my father, he was really happy about it and none the worse for knowing. I completely disagree with this whole business of keeping vital information from anyone - you can't keep it from the person who is ill and not from family and friends either. By holding back information, we are somehow suggesting that we have greater rights over it. If a parent decides not to tell the child about his/her illness, in my opinion, s/he is being unfair. S/he has no right to deprive the son or daughter from doing whatever it is that they would like to do to help under the circumstances. The parents think that by not telling, they are protecting the child from sadness/anxiety/worry. But what they don’t realise is that, if something untoward like death were to happen, the daughter/son could be left scarred for life, wallowing in needless guilt that s/he didn’t do enough. Parents' actions stem from good intentions, I know but, sadly, we just don’t discuss things openly at home, especially the “bad” things in life.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Sudarshan. A. G. said...


My father has Parkinson's disease... His family (brothers etc) rarely like to tell abt it in any occassion. I have seen more concern from his colleagues than... Thankfully Appa is very forthcoming.. someone looks at his hand... pat comes the reply "It's PD".

recognising that one has teh disease is half the battle...

Also it is in the psyche of indians... we in general leave everything to the higher power... and feel deeply wronged when life takes its own course...

Thankfully atleast our generation will not continue to do so... to feel wronged... yes... but standing up to it nevertheless.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, yes. I don't understand what's the problem in getting treated. It's like it's a mistake or you should not be sick/treated, either of which I don't understand.
Anyway, even if they don't talk, at least they listen.

8:32 PM  
Blogger jaded said...

As usual, you have hit the nail on the head. Relatives, specially are just so weird. They will never tell you when it is a dangerous disease but they will tell you every little detail of pete baetha and peth kharap.
And then suddenly, they will give you the bad news: onno ke dukhho diye ki labh etc being their argument...
But we have a right to know.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Rohan Kumar said...

Well said

12:46 PM  
Blogger Dipanjan Das said...

you have touched upon a very relevant topic. this thing is inherent in bengalis.

my chhotomama who was a doctor himself did not take the vaccines for hepatitis B even when he knew that he was a carrier for a couple of years. he passed away at the age of 50 last year in terrible pain. i don't know why we do such things.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Bengali Guy said...

Perhaps with the recent introduction of medical insurance, regular health checkups will become more common as insurance companies link premiums to one's health quotient.

Another thing I noticed is the complete lack of dental hygiene. 10 years ago, noone went for regular cleaning to the dentist. Dont know how things are now.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Priya said...

Bengalis and their whims and fancies. Fancies in this case, I'd say. E.g. My F-i-l regales in narrating his illnesses at length, esp. over long distance calls(STD or ISD). But ask him to go to a doc and he'll look the other way. We've tried our best, when we were in Cal for a short while, but couldn't budge the stubborn man. The outcome now is that even his son chooses to ignore and cut these rants short. The son's take "He won't have much to talk about,if he cures himself." So much for the little pleasures of life! In fact no one really pays much heed to him these days. Just hope it doesn't become a case of the popular Bengali lore of Rakhal and the tiger, with him. Weird are the ways of people.

2:40 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ satchisgod mante parlam na. Ppl come and go attitude doesn't hold water when it comes to someone close to you. I for one would never want to lose someone I love just for being negligent. Give me a break!
@ seashells I'm sorry to hear about your grandfather and uncle. We can only learn from mistakes and hope to be lucky. And true sometimes all the check ups don't stop you from getting sick. But atleast it's worth a try. You know, you will not spend the rest of your life blaming yourself.
@ kele panchu I never thought of it that way as being an aristocratic upper body disease thing. But cancer anywhere even high up in the brain is also never spoken of, right?
@ true blue guy it is very painful ans esp stressful to suddenly find out that someone close to you is critically ill and you're probably the last one to know.
@ ron that's what it is...overprotectiveness. And it drives us nuts but I guess they're just trying to save us from added pain and stress.
@ ghostoftomjoad could not agree with you more. Brilliantly said.
@ a.g.s. I only hope people are becoming a little more conscious. My point here was not parents keeping facts away from children and not discussing "bad" things like disease. But the fact that they try to keep it away from themselves too. Denial and not wanting to know. That drives me nuts.
@ pidus ghosh it is probably denial. Not believing that it could happen and denying it when it does happen.
@ jaded may be they think we can deal with pet kharap and not with something more serious.
@ rohan thanks and nice seeing you here again.
@ dd I fail to understand that too and it is sad.
@ bengali guy I guess it is the attitude that is reflected in what satchisgod said (see comment above). kind of let sleeping dogs lie thing. Nobody wants to know, nobody believes it could happen and if it does happen let us pretend that we do not know. may be it will go away. Like magic!
@ priya it happens. There's no point getting mad at the fancies of people because they have a certain mindset and it is hard to change that after all these years. We can only pray and hope for the best.

9:27 AM  
Blogger That Girl said...

yes...actually i had to undergo a bit of treatment myself.. god! i thought it was something really serious and i didnt wanna go to the doc just coz i was cringing at the result.. anyways turned out to be ok.. but still.. i think its the fact of talking it over with the doc and having your fears confirmed.. i think they KNEW something major was wrong.. they were just scared to have it made known to them....its hard..

9:55 AM  
Blogger Point 5 said...

Ignorance is never bliss...especially in such situations, the more u know the better. With the advent of internet it's so easy to research stuff on suc illness

2:57 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ grafxgurl I know what you are saying. People are usually scared of the unknown. But what I'm trying to say is wouldn't you rather know and be able to treat it than have it creep upon you while you're ignoring it?
@ point 5 you're right. It is, but most people don't want to know.

10:58 AM  
Blogger ghetufool said...

nice post m.
reminded me of a lady who died of breast cancer at her 25.
she hide the fact from everybody as she was ashamed that her beautiful image would be dented. she wanted to die with an impecable reputation of beauty.
but, that sadly didn't happen. we saw her painful death. she almost went mad in pain and fear. she looked ugly that time.

2:20 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ ghetufool isn't that sad?

3:49 PM  
Blogger Wanderlust said...

Oh! your opinion about bengalis is so true....and yes, i do agree that there are people who are afraid of facing the truth, sadly so and thus face dire consequences....i think its we as youngsters who can make a difference by bringing to their notice what they could avoid if informed and properly undergoing treatment....I liked this article coz it deals with a truly serious issue.

8:02 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ ashmi thanks!

9:51 AM  
Blogger littlecow said...

more generically, denial could be a natural character trait of Indians... yes, that is stretching it a bit tooo far. but perhaps not without evidence - people think that all problems will get solved by fervent prayers, that everything is rosy and well in India when they are certainly not - child marriages, rapes, poor treatment for widows, corruption and so on. understandable that people do not want to share unpleasant details but then, when it makes a direct impact on a person's life, it is only good to get it out in the open. anyways, good observational post.

9:48 PM  
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7:59 PM  

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