Life’s Carbuncles

The Traditional Saya, also referred to as "The Maria Clara," a reference to the tragic heroine in Jose RIzal's novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not).  It is interesting that the title was also taken from a medieval term physicians at the time used to refer to cancerous swellings.

The Traditional Saya, also referred to as “The Maria Clara,” a reference to the tragic heroine in Jose Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not). It is interesting that the title was also taken from a medieval term physicians at the time used to refer to cancerous swellings.

She walked into our office with her two grandchildren in tow. She was wearing the traditional Spanish-influenced turn of the 20th century garb, the saya.  We don’t see those too often anymore. The light lace-edged cream-colored top with its starched panuelo (shawl) added some bulk to her delicate frame. The azure print of her long skirt danced gracefully around her legs.  She was put together like the proper well-heeled woman of her time, from the top of her neatly coiffed french knot to her embroidered sandals.  Her grandchildren flanked her on each side. It was obvious they revered the dowager of their family.

They had traveled into the city for over two hours to see us because their grandmother had been nursing a lump on the right side of her abdomen below her breast for the past year. They spoke quietly and discreetly, all the time being careful to describe the problem delicately and respectfully.  The lump was discovered a month ago by a new caregiver, who had promptly reported the matter to their parents.

We asked to see this lump.  The young ones looked to their grandmother for her response. She waved her agreement at them. We all helped her raise her top.  The lump was the size of a slightly deflated tennis ball.  It had a gray cast. On palpation, it was soft and cystic. She winced and looked away.  Her eyes welled up.

Carbuncle Illustrated, Illustration courtesy of

Carbuncle Illustrated, Illustration courtesy of

Has she had any fevers?  Has she been feeling fatigued lately, more easily tired or lacking in energy?  Did this start out as a raging angry boil?  Did it try to drain only to close and reform?  Yes to all the questions.

We recommended more tests. However, we thought it was mostly likely a carbuncle, and a chronic one too.  It would need to be incised and drained properly in order for the skin to heal adequately and completely.

The woman nodded sadly. She admitted resignedly she knew it had to be done. But she had put off seeking medical treatment because the mere thought of the pain the excision would bring frightened her so much that she hid the malady from her own children all these months.

She was fortunate that for someone of her advanced age (pushing 80 and all that!), this had not resulted in a more systemic infection.  We admonished her that she must have endured several flare ups of fever and pain.  She agreed that indeed this was the case.  She sighed, looked at her grandchildren, and then towards us, she quietly gave permission for us to proceed with a more definitive treatment.


We all have carbuncles in our lives. And I don’t mean this to be exclusively a physical affliction.  They start out as small pimples (folliculitis). Left untreated, they enlarge and spread.  We suffer through the discomfort. We postpone getting rid of the problem. Thoughts of conclusive solutions fill us with clammy dread and sleepless tossing.  Instead, we wallow in the pain and anxiety.  We nurse the lump and cater to its whims by modifying our daily activities.  It saps us of our energy and zest for doing a lot of things.  It may even take over our lives, coloring our judgment, our outlook, even dampening our aspirations and passions. Or, it may hang around us like an unpleasant visitor who refuses to leave.  Oh, the pain, the pain, we would lament silently.  The indecisions are like shackles on our ankles, weighing us down, preventing us from the more enjoyable, more fulfilling journey we could take our lives to.

Unsaid words.  Unresolved conflicts.  Unforgiven debts.  Uncollected obligations.  Untold truths.  Unapologized deeds. Unsevered ties. Unconfessed transgressions.  Many more.

And yet, it’s amazing how once it’s done, life seems to take on a brighter turn.  Why do people keep putting it off?  It’s a mystery to me.

P.S. I think this post does qualify for the Ben Huberman’s Daily Prompt: Baggage Check.

This entry was posted in Abscess, Boil, Carbuncle, forgiveness, Infection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Life’s Carbuncles

  1. auntyuta says:

    Why do people delay asking for treatment? Does it often involve having to travel for some distance which they are reluctant to do? Are they afraid treatment might cost too much?
    Who was the grandmother’s caregiver? A doctor? I suppose this caregiver would have referred the old woman to your office where treatment could be given? It was lovely, the two grandchildren did accompany the grandmother. This support would have given her quite a lot of courage.
    This may happen frequently that elderly people are reluctant to open up to their children about the state of their health.
    You say: “She was fortunate that for someone of her advanced age (pushing 80 and all that!), this had not resulted in a more systemic infection.” Very fortunate indeed.

    In 2010 I started a growth on my tongue. In May 2011 I had a day-care operation at the hospital. The surgeon was able to cut the whole lot out. There were some cancer cells inside the bit that was cut out. I was very fortunate that the whole lot came out without a problem. This was three years ago. I have been to several check-ups in the meantime. Just this week another check-up had been due at the office of my surgeon. He was happy to tell me that the inside of my mouth looked still all right. I only have to have two more check-ups now: One in a year’s time, and then the last one in two years. After that I am of the hook and can tell my surgeon to get lost (so he says!) 🙂


    • auntyuta says:

      One more thing: I am pushing 80 too. You are right, this is an advanced age. I am looking forward to being off the hook before too long! 🙂


      • likeitiz says:

        Ah, Aunty. So glad you beat the odds. As for the old woman, she hid the lesion under layers of native dress. She did not allow anyone to help her bathe or dress. Since she was a widow, she did not have anyone with her in her room either. The new caregiver who was hired by one of her children has found the lesion while helping her dress herself. The rest you know. It’s amazing the lengths some people will go to hide something that could be easily remedied if only they did not let their imagination of some horrific pain or discomfort get the enter of them.


  2. john todaro says:

    Wisely observed essay. Your links, photo and description of the Saya –all very interesting.


  3. Lucid Gypsy says:

    This is so true, the waiting does such terrible damage.


    • likeitiz says:

      Yes, we are all guilty of this in many ways. I hope mine are just pimples. I know some people have such big ones, they look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, carrying their emotional baggage around.


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