The Emperor and the Crab



They named me after a crab, because even though my eyes appear to face forward, I walk sideways to surprise my prey. Or is it the other way around? They are after me, but I avoid them with great cunning. Some twin me with death, but they don’t realize I actually hold the secret to eternal life. Division and multiplication are all the same to me, because the more I split myself in half, the more clones I spread out there, thus extending the game. I’m also a voracious guest, eating what my host feeds me. But when the food runs out, I hungrily gobble her up until we both slump into a heap of ashes. I sometimes change my strategy and hide under the sand for a whilesay, five yearsand then make a comeback. I’m also a shape-shifter, changing my modus operandi and appearance, sending my enemies scurrying for new weapons to defeat me. I am, as christened in my biography by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies. But my real name is simply cancer, like the crab-shaped diamond constellation that holds the night sky together.


Cancer! That is the word I was trying to push to the back of my mind as I pushed my way forward on the crowded bus. That’s when I ran into him, looking slightly worn after a hard day’s work at the hospital, but always ready with a warm smile for an old friend or patient.

“Hello David!”

“How are you? How’s the family?”

“Fine, but I need your help. I’ve been waiting for the results of some tests, and from the way the radiologist looked at me, I’m sure it’s bad news. You’ve got access to all my files, haven’t you?”

“Not to worry. I’ll let you know,” he mumbled as he stepped off the bus.

His call came the following day.

“I’ve arranged for the head of the Breast Centre to give you an appointment as quickly as possible.”

“Spit it out! Don’t beat around the bush! What is it?”

“I’m not beating around the bush. You were supposed to say “Why the hurry?” and I was supposed to answer “Well, because… Yes, it’s cancer, but the more curable type.”

That was two summers ago. Today is a rainy, slushy, windy, still-winter grey day, and my mood matches the weather. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, my mood has been influenced by the weather more than by my illness. And of course, by the waiting, as well as the numerous appointments with numerous doctors, each with his/her agenda, his/her fake optimistic smile, his/her “don’t worry, my dear, everything will be fine.” And the worried calls from friends and family wanting to know the unknowable. As for the kindness of friends… well, that is the best and sometimes the worst part of it.

An acquaintance:

“You look much better today, my dear. Last time we met you looked ghastly.” (I didn’t know I had looked ghastly.)

A yoga buddy:

“There is this wonderful video on YouTube. Did you know that you can cure cancer with a vegan diet and a strict detox regime? (I know all about those quacks, thank you.)

A relative:

“There is this clinic in Mexico, just south of the border… It’s good Trump hasn’t built his wall yet.” (Everybody has heard about these clinics.)

A book-club member:

“My dear, you must stop being angry at the world. You know that, don’t you, that cancer strikes people when they’re stressed out?” (Why blame the victim?)

A neighbour:

“Are you going to be home this evening? I’ll bring you some frozen home-made soups for when you don’t feel like cooking. You must eat well, you know.” (I’ve been turned off soup for the rest of my life.)

OK, well, perhaps these are not all my friends, but they are certainly well meaning. My real friends have more practical offerings.

A former colleague:

“I’ll do whatever needs to be done, cook, clean, shop for groceries, drive you to the hospital, whatever.”

A voice from the past:

“Hello, sweetheart, just wanting to hear your voice. Love you!”

The young ones:

“Hello, grandma, when can we come visit?”

Heartwarming, but deep down I’m grateful for email and voicemail technology. You read or listen and you answer or not. Most importantly, you learn that your opinion is the only one that matters.

Yes, there is a silver lining to this black cloud that now hangs over the view from my window. There are the friends who hug you tighter than usual (mind the incision please). The acquaintances who turn out to be real friends. And the ex-lovers who might have stopped lusting after you but still love you. There are also the siblings who start phoning you every day from faraway continents, and the offspring who conquer their fear of flying to calm your own fears. The list is endless.

At the hospital you start recognizing faces and smiling at them diffidently, while trying to make sure the pale blue kimono (definitely not designed by Karl Lagerfeld) doesn’t open up from behind. You also stop caring whether you will be assisted by a male or a female radiation technician. People don’t really see your once cuddly and erogenous fountain of milk and honey. All they see is a tattooed radiation target that has to be positioned correctly before the big machine starts whirling its killer-rays.

You learn the real meaning of the words solidarity, complicity, empathy and even tenderness. Yes, cancer cells indeed multiply themselves with great abandon, but so do all the feelings that unite us and make us human. There is no place for anger in this web of shared misery.

On my first day at the clinic for a blood sample, the phlebotomist, who happened to come from a warm country like myself, wondered why I chose to retire in Canada where it is so cold. When I explained that Canada was a good country to live in if you were cursed with cancer, he looked up at me and nodded silently.

What is the final word on cancer? Is it a battle, a journey, an enemy to conquer? A cross to endure? Who knows! Forget I said “cursed with cancer.” I was wrong. It is certainly not a curse. It’s just a signpost, warning you not to step on the crabs that might cross your path.


Maya Khankhoje has fond childhood memories of coming out of a swimming pool in Chiconcuac, a colonial village in Mexico, faced with the almost impossible task of not stepping on one of dozens of crabs that had congregated there. Her toes are still intact.