There is no news that one can hear about oneself that is more dreadful than being told that you have cancer. The mind shuts down for a few minutes. No matter what the doctor is saying, the words do not register. It is like in the movies. The only difference is that the scene passes in the movies, and there is a happy ending. Not in real life. The scene has just begun, and the ending could very well be anything but happy. Such was the state of mind of Rick when he heard for the first time that the reason he could not get any relief from constipation, no matter what remedy he tried, was that there was a golf ball-sized tumor sitting in his colon.
Having just entered the eighth decade of his life, Rick had led an otherwise happy and fulfilling life as a high school biology teacher. He was a simple and kind man with the neat and scholarly appearance that you would expect from a teacher. His simplicity was evident from the ballpoint pen nicely tucked into the front pocket of his shirt that he pulled out along with the little notebook that he still used, in this electronic age, to jot down important dates and to recall doctor’s appointments. He had married the love of his life, who over the years had taken on the role of redirecting him, either with short two or three-word sentences or sometimes simply with her gaze, every time he had a lapse of cognition.
The surgeon felt like an angel descended on earth sent by God. She had used her skill, and it seemed nothing less than a miracle when she told him in the recovery room, as his deep slumber of anesthesia was wearing off, that she was successful at removing the giant tumor. However, the cancer had spread to a number of surrounding lymph nodes. There was a high chance of the cancer coming back in the next few months if he did not go through brutal chemotherapy in an attempt to kill any remaining cancer cells in the body. For that, he had to see a medical oncologist, and this is when I met him for the first time.
“You will go through three months of chemotherapy. It will be hard, but you should be able to get through it,” I explained to him. “Will that make sure that the cancer will not come back?” He asked. “There are no promises, unfortunately, but we will get scans of your body every few months for the next five years to look for any signs of cancer coming back.” Disappointed at the lack of guarantee of a cure, he looked into my eyes trying to find hope, only to find my attempt at making a poker face.
He finished chemotherapy without any major side effects, and we started obtaining scans every few months. Scan after scan showed no sign of cancer. The three of us would sit down, and after discussing the scan results, we would talk about each other’s lives and share stories of the past few months since the previous office visit. This is when, for the first time, I heard about the story of “Lucky the Duck.”
Rick got home a few days ago after his cancer operation and was recovering in the comfort of his home. He was walking around the house but not yet going out or lifting anything heavy. One day, as he stood in his living room, he looked outside his glass windows and saw the backyard covered entirely with snow. The swimming pool was covered to protect it from the weather’s beating of the harsh winter. His eyes suddenly caught on a small round object sitting on top of the swimming pool cover. His curiosity compelled him to walk outside carefully to see what it was. He was at the risk of a fall on the ice but despite his wife’s warnings, he went anyway. As he got closer, he found out that it was actually an egg.
As a biology teacher, he was used to handling eggs. It was a routine for him to incubate eggs as biology projects to teach his students about the life cycles of various birds. With no way of knowing whether the egg was fertilized or not, he brought it inside anyway. It may even have been frozen, terminating any signs of life inside the shell. Nonetheless, he took it to the basement where he had the incubator that he used in the classroom, currently collecting dust since he retired. He placed the egg near the heating rod adjusting it to the exact temperature that was required for the egg to hatch, 101 degrees Fahrenheit, as he had taught his students for several decades.
Every day he came to the basement to check on the egg not knowing whether it would hatch or not. Each day Rick turned the egg just as the mother would in the nest. When nothing happened for a couple of weeks, he could have just picked it up and thrown it in the trash bin, but something in his mind told him to keep watching. On the twenty-sixth day, when he walked into the basement, he heard a small baby duck chirping lightly sitting in the midst of the cracked eggshells. It was so tiny that it could barely walk and open its eyes. Rick smiled from “cuteness overload.” He named the duckling “Lucky.”
Not having grown up in a pet-loving home myself, I don’t usually know a lot about different pet animals and the nuances of taking care of them. “Is a duck a usual animal to keep as a pet?” I asked with genuine intrigue. “No, it’s not. But there’s nothing stopping you from giving a duckling a loving home if you would like to,” he quipped. “But I have to be honest. I don’t really want any animal control authorities to find out so please keep this story to yourself. I don’t know what their rules and laws are. I don’t want to lose Lucky.” So there Lucky was, having found a loving home in an upscale town in western New York under the care of two loving parents.
Lucky ate what usual bird pets eat: Rice Krispies, cereal, worms. He liked to sleep off and on just about anywhere in the house but often in the bed made out of an old cardboard box. He came and sat in his parent’s lap when he felt like it. He sat in Rick’s shoes to greet him when he arrived home from a trip to the grocery store. Lucky loved to stay indoors and be warm most of the year. He became a family member featured in all Christmas photos. His birthday, aptly named hatch-day, was celebrated each year. Rick thought of Lucky as a therapy duck. As Rick healed from surgery and the effects of chemotherapy, Lucky sat with him, thus bonding and imprinting. Rick would relax as would Lucky when he held him. The only thing Mrs. Rick did not seem very thrilled about was the fact that Lucky could not be potty-trained, so the entire house needed to be constantly vacuumed. Still wanting to see the optimistic aspect of the situation, she told me that is how she got her daily exercise.
Somehow, it appeared that Rick’s journey of going through cancer ran in parallel to Lucky’s life. Lucky was born and adopted, essentially given a new life at around the same time when Rick’s oncology team declared him to be cancer-free after his surgery. Rick’s cancer remained in remission for a couple of years when during a clinic visit, I had to break bad news to him. “Your scan is showing a nodule on your lung. It could either be cancerous or not, but we cannot find out because it is too small to stick a needle into it for a biopsy. The only thing we can do is repeat the scans every three months and see if it grows or disappears. If it grows, we are in trouble; if it goes away, we are all set.” I explained. “But do you know how hard it is to live with this kind of uncertainty, doc?” He responded. “I know and I wish I could help with that, but I can’t. Nobody can.” I replied. Those few months were very difficult for Rick. Those were the days when Lucky also went through a life-threatening incident.
Rick used to let Lucky venture outdoors each day. Lucky would fly away and always come back in an hour or so. One morning, Lucky did not return. Three hours passed, then four, then six. The anticipation increased. Rick thought of at least a hundred scenarios of how Lucky may have already died. That is when his neighbor called to inform him that he had found Lucky in his yard. He rushed to bring Lucky home and found him lying feebly under a tree. Not only that, but several of his feathers were chewed out, and there was also a sizable wound on his side. He instantly realized that the neighbor’s dog Rover, a golden retriever, had bitten Lucky and while escaping for his life, he got stuck in the bushes.
Rick brought Lucky home and nursed him for the next few weeks. Lucky did not quack or fly for three weeks. Not all, but some of his feathers grew back, and the wound healed. But Lucky never left the front yard whenever let out after this incident. It’s as if he was scarred for life. But all is well that ends well, I guess. He was at least not killed by the dog. Rick had a similar kind of relief when I told him at a visit that his lung nodule had disappeared on a follow-up scan.
At the end of five years of follow-up, I told Rick, “This far out, the chances of your cancer coming back are now down to a point that you don’t need to see me anymore.” Happy and relieved to hear that, he invited me to his house to meet Lucky. Lucky was even more loving and beautiful than what I had so far construed him to be in my imagination.
As I was leaving the house, looking at Rick, cured of his cancer and Lucky having endured a number of potentially life-ending incidents, I wondered and asked Rick, “Why did you name him Lucky?” He responded matter-of-factly, “Because it was his good luck that I found his egg before it was destroyed.” I thought to myself, “Was Rick lucky for Lucky, or was Lucky lucky for Rick? Maybe Rick was the one who was lucky to have survived the cancer and in some spiritual realm, this was all because of his act of kindness towards Lucky.”
Farhan S. Imran is a hematology-oncology physician who blogs at Did I Ask?