By MINA AMSO
40-year-old Chaldean Catholic Waseem Hermiz, a Kiwi-Aussie-Iraqi, thought his days were over. February 11, 2021, Sydney, Australia, is a date Mr Hermiz will never forget.
He was walking up to his car from work when he felt un-coordinated, and fell to the ground unconscious for a few minutes. He didn’t think much of it at the time and went about his day. He had been working in Australia since 2010, having studied at Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland, and having worked for six years as a forensic scientist at the ESR crown institute before crossing the Tasman. But a week after the February 11 incident this year, the same thing happened. Only this time he recalls “staying longer on the ground” for over a minute, with feeling lost in his legs, down to his toes.
Doctors told him to get a scan right away, and he was told to go straight to the emergency department at the hospital, and, of course, he began to realise there was something really bad going on.
Finally, the diagnosis was clear. Mr Hermiz had developed a rare type of grade two to three brain cancer called Oligodendroglioma: a tumour the size of two large peaches was taking up a third of his right frontal lobe, or the front part of his brain. It is so rare that only a handful of surgeons are able to operate on it.
There aren’t readily available local statistics, but some 1200 people get diagnosed each year, and just under 12,000 live with this condition, in the United States alone. This type accounts for four per cent of all primary brain tumours. Doctors told Mr Hermiz that his case was the biggest they had ever seen. It was a blow for the father of three.
“In my gut feeling, I knew it was a tumour. And I wasn’t even going ‘maybe it is or maybe it isn’t’. It is a tumour.”
“When I first got diagnosed with it, I instantly thought ‘oh wow what’s this?’ it was a wow of a moment, a shocking moment for me.”
“Out of nowhere, I go do this test, it comes back to ‘oh we need to go to emergency right now, don’t delay’. And when I got to emergency they said ‘you’ve got a huge brain tumour’.”
He was also told that, if he walked out of the hospital’s doors, his chances of being alive would be close to zero, with a life expectancy of about two to three days. Mr Hermiz says the symptoms weren’t alarming enough to prompt a doctor’s visit earlier. He remembers having headaches two to three times a day, every other day or so, for around four to six months previously.
He remembers going through the motions, questioning everything, shocked in disbelief, but resigning himself to the fact that “it is what it is”, and thinking to himself “I can go through it”.
“I have the help of my faith, with the cross of Jesus, he’s the one that carried me through this whole experience throughout last year, and carried my family even more so.”
By the time Mr Hermiz felt unwell enough to see doctors, the tumour had grown so large that it began squeezing other parts of the brain against the skull, and constricting key blood vessels, therefore affecting vital brain functions. Doctors also told Hermiz that the tumour was at a stage where it could begin to impact bodily movement, sense of smell, eyesight, and blood vessels in the brain.
Mr Hermiz, who says he’s a “practising, Christian Catholic”, said that he felt that death seemed to be right at his doorsteps, and he had nothing but his faith to hold on to, and trust in God.
He joked that he had two options: to do the operation or do the operation. But a lot can go wrong if he had to go under the knife for 12 hours straight. Losing eyesight, losing mobility, and even death was a possible outcome. But he went with it, and, to his surgeon’s surprise, the operation turned out a success, said Hermiz.
The hours were long and hard at the hospital, and the road to recovery was arduous for Mr Hermiz, who had to rely on the strength and support of his family and his children to keep him going. He says that the fact that he’s talking and breathing today is a miracle. It took him about a year to come right, and well enough to go back to full-time work.
“My parents were over the moon. So thankful to God on that day that I went through death and back out of it again.”
But when he told his community the news, things were a bit strange.
“When I first told them, they were saying ‘no, that couldn’t happen to you’. I said ‘what do you mean?’. They said, ‘but you’re a God-fearing person, you come to church every week, why would it happen to you?’ And I am thinking ‘what’s that got to do with having a disease?”
“They said ‘oh, no, no, a disease is the wrath of God on people who are bad or something like that. And I’m thinking ‘oh no, no, that’s not how it works, and I told them anybody could have a disease, it has got nothing to do with God punishing you. It’s a natural form of being a human being. God is the one giving you good things, not bad things.”
“So, the community was a bit shocked. They couldn’t even say the word cancer. In Arabic we call it ‘al marath al khabeeth’, which translates to the ‘cunning disease’. But no, just call it by its name.”
Mr Hermiz wasn’t keen on being an object of pity, and is unashamedly critical of the Middle Eastern way of looking at cancer. He comes from a Chaldean, Assyrian background, and says that some people from his culture look at cancer as a shameful thing that must be kept a secret, otherwise it would be abhorrent for others to know.
“If you’ve been sinful, if you’ve not been a good person, then you’d be struck down with a disease of some sort, and the worst of all diseases is cancer. Because that’s a death sentence.”
He realised that a lot of people were going through the same thing as he was, but would not dare talk about their experiences openly. But if they knew someone who’d been through it, then they would share.
His message is: Not to be afraid to talk about cancer, but to embrace it, accept it, and acknowledge that it is not the wrath of God, but a time to seek out help and support from the community. That changes lives, he says.
He’s encouraging people who are going through a cancer diagnosis and/or treatment to know that they are not alone, and should not go through this alone. That they are loved. He encouraged their family and friends to cherish the present moments and look to the future, in expectant hope.
Waseem Hermiz says
I want to thank the author of this article, Mina Amso, and her take on my story of 2021 with cancer. Also thanking the staff and management of NZ Catholic who decided to publish the article and make it available to a more wider readership in New Zealand. God bless those who made this happen. Praying that people with cancer be cured and have inner healing from the Lord Our God who rescued and healed me from this disease.