Cancer - no matter how many commercials you see on TV or advertisements on billboards, you never really think it will affect you, so you go about your day.
However, cancer is a word my family knows all too well. You see, my maternal grandfather passed from cancer before I was born and my mother was afflicted with the disease and passed on December 8, 1982, when I was 5. My father was left alone to raise seven children, all of us keenly aware of what this deadly disease can do. Fast forward to June 1, 2010.
It was around lunch time that I received a call from my brother, Jamal, and listened to him as he informed me that his doctor had diagnosed him with cancer. His voice was low, even toned and somber. He was not familiar with the type of cancer he had so there was also uncertainty in his voice. We didn't know the severity of his illness so we tried not to be pessimistic about the outcome. However, the memory of our mother passing from this disease was not far from our thoughts.
You may know Jamal from his time on the administration of Masjid Ayah in Laurel, Maryland or from his constant presence at Dar-As-Salaam in College Park, Maryland. Jamal Muhammad is the third eldest son of my parents and the first of my siblings to graduate from college. He was always known as the smart one, the nerd if you will. As a child, he was even-tempered, I can't remember ever having an argument with him. The morning I came home to the news my mother had passed, in the midst of the confusion, his face was the calmest. Growing up, he was always offering up a little known fact about something having to do with nature. It is because of my trips with him to the National Arboretum in Washington, DC that I know how to recognize a Dogwood tree and a Chinese Maple. While in college he drove an old Honda Accord, a stick shift, and I remember watching him in awe as he navigated the gears with friendship bracelets on his wrist. He majored in Environmental Science at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He was the cool brother, the one I wanted to be like when I grew up.
The news of his diagnosis shocked my family but we all knew we had to do something to help him. Jamal is not here in the United States. In 2004, Jamal and his wife, Safia, decided to move to Hofuf, Saudi Arabia where they have lived for the last 8 years. Jamal works as an English teacher at King Faisal University. He and his wife have 6 children – 4 boys and 2 girls ma shaa Allah the eldest child is 9 year old Talha. They are expecting their seventh child insha Allah later this year.
We knew that his treatment and recovery would put him out of work for some time which was an immediate concern for Jamal. With the desire to be of assistance from afar, my family came up with a plan. Knowing how shy Jamal is, knowing he would never ask for help even when he needed it most, I asked for his permission to launch a website, www.jamalssadaqafund.wordpress.com, to garner attention to Jamal’s plight and raise money for him and his family while he was out of work. After a few days of contemplation, he gave me the okay. With the help of hundreds of people who spread the word of the website via their personal blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, email contacts, forums, Jumuah announcements at the masjid and word of mouth, we were able to raise enough money for Jamal to support his family while he was unable to work.
Meanwhile, Jamal was receiving more information about the type of cancer he had. It’s called Liposarcoma, a relatively rare soft tissue cancer. About 4 years before his diagnosis, Jamal injured his hamstring playing basketball. He did what one would normally do, iced it and stayed off the court for a couple weeks while it healed. However, a lump formed at the site of the injury and continued to grow slowly. It was when it started to give him some discomfort that he decided to see a doctor about it. After an MRI and a biopsy, the doctor informed him that the mass was malignant and called myxoid liposarcoma. The game plan was to immediately begin treatment at a specialty hospital in the Kingdom. However, such hospitals are for Saudi citizens only unless referred to by the office of the Crown Prince. It took some time, a lot of leg work for Jamal and patience, but he received his referral within a month of his diagnosis. On October 16, 2010 Jamal had the operation to remove the tumor from his leg. We all breathed a sigh of relief, for now it was over.
The relief we felt was short lived. On December 17, 2011 during a follow up visit with his doctor, Jamal was informed that they discovered a 1 cm nodule in the upper lobe of his right lung. They scheduled him for another surgery where they removed a wedge of his lung and upon further test confirmed that it was the same type of malignant tumor found in his leg. The cancer had metastasized. In his next follow up appointment, the doctors also discovered that the tumor at the original site of the cancer had returned. They operated once more to remove the tumor and were successful. However during a pet scan, they discovered a mass about the size of an orange growing in his abdomen. They scheduled him for yet another surgery. When the date of the surgery came and Jamal was admitted to the hospital, the doctors performed a series of tests and scans on Jamal prior to the surgery. Instead of performing the surgery as scheduled, they released Jamal from the hospital saying they would contact him later. Confused and frustrated, Jamal returned home to wait for word from his medical team.
What happened next left my family shaken.
On May 19, 2012 after Fajr prayer, I checked my phone for any messages and I read the following from Jamal: “Lateefah, I need to get Safia and the kids home. The surgery is canceled for now cause they discovered it metastasized to my pelvic bone and part of my spine.”
I sat on the edge of my bed to gather myself. Our mother had cancer of the spine and she passed within 6 months of her diagnosis. This thought played over and over again in my head. Then I thought of my father. My father witnessed the deterioration of my mothers health at the hands of this disease. Now, he has 2 sons with cancer (Tauheed Muhammad was diagnosed with Oligodendroglioma after Jamal and had brain surgery to remove his tumor). I picked up the phone to call him and deliver the news. My father, ever the optimist, simply said “Subhanallah, this is what Allah has decreed”, but I heard the pain and helplessness he felt in his voice.
In the next week, Jamal would be told by his doctors that there was no hope for curing him. They suggested chemotherapy to simply lessen the pain and slow the growth of the cancer but that he was beyond a cure. In the wake of his illness, Jamal received word from his employer that they would not be renewing his contract next year. Things were starting to look grim.
Feeling shy at first, but determined to help our brother, my family decided to reach out to the community once more for help. Within weeks, we raised $13,000 to aid Jamal and his family to return home to the United States. In extraordinary fashion, the worldwide Muslim community came together to help their brother in need. We had donations from all over the US, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Canada and Singapore. We had single donations from $5 to over $1000. We had emails and notes expressing care and concern and offers of further help for Jamal and his family. We began the work of bringing him and his family home but it hasn't been without complications. Registering his children as US citizens born in Saudi Arabia, obtaining and renewing passports for 7 people, and applying for a visa for his wife have all proven to be arduous tasks.
Meanwhile, Jamal’s health began deteriorating with each day that passed. He started experiencing debilitating pain in his abdomen and back, so much so that at times he couldn't move. He made the decision to begin chemotherapy with the medical team in Saudi. The chemo, administered in 3 sessions over 6 weeks, proved to be a test for Jamal, Safia and their children who up till that point didn't really understand the seriousness of their father's illness. You see through all of this, Jamal has held onto his crazy humor, making us laugh when we wanted to cry. However, the chemotherapy affected Jamal in a way he never expected. He could not eat or drink without vomiting, his sense of smell was such that he would feel nauseated at the smell of anything. With each treatment he has lost more and more hair, and the discomfort he felt was beyond description. Alhamdulillah, that part of his treatment in now over.
Only Allah knows what is in store for Jamal. Insha Allah, he will be home in the US this October after another follow up visit with his medical team. Now, though, he has no source of income and we are full of questions on what happens when he gets home. Where will he and his family live, will he be able to get medical treatment when he gets home, will the cancer go into remission, will he be able to find employment, these are all concerns that Jamal expresses when we speak. However, through all of this we have learned that where there is a need, Allah will provide and we trust His decree.
The strength Jamal has shown through all of this can be summed up in a Facebook status he once posted: “A lot of people think I'm in a bad situation. I'm actually in a good situation. All I have to do is endure patiently and my sins will be forgiven because I believe in Allah.”
In the end, Jamal is still the brother I look up to as an example of what it means to have Iman (faith) and we pray that his children have the opportunity to witness this for a long time to come.
Lateefah Muhammad is Jamal Muhammad's younger sister. You can read all about Jamal’s journey at jamalssadaqafund.wordpress.com. Donations are still being accepted and are greatly appreciated.