The first time cancer ever came near my life was several years ago, when a dear childhood friend of mine lost her husband to a strange, rare cancer. A few years after that, I lost my father to lung cancer.
Two years ago, my family and I learned that a young woman I used to babysit – a woman now in her prime, working as a producer for a local news network – was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, that had already spread to her liver and colon. Not long after that, my brother-in-law lost his sister to ovarian cancer. And as you know, just a few months ago my own sister found out she had breast cancer.
While sending out a fundraising email for my Breast Cancer Awareness Walk, I heard back from an old friend my sister commuted with for several years. She’s just recently recovered from colon cancer, and a dear friend of hers was lost to stomach cancer only three weeks after he’d been diagnosed.
Sadly, I could go on. A stepbrother, who’s stepson has terminal brain tumors. A friend we ran into last week while shopping, who is still recovering from skin cancer. But that’s only part of my point.
My sister is finished with her chemotherapy now. She’s going to start radiation soon, but that’s quicker, easier, and has no side effects. Her chemotherapy consisted of sitting in a treatment room with thirty other patients, for three hours once a week, while chemicals dripped in to a port in her chest.
The treatment room is an interesting place. They had recliners for the patients, nice leather chairs that the patients could nap or rest in, and beside each one was another chair – not bad, not uncomfortable – for the companion. It was expected that every person receiving treatment would have a companion with them, someone who drove them there and would drive them home, someone to keep them company while they sit and wait several hours, someone to keep them distracted from the horror that was happening inside their bodies. Someone who could take charge if need be, and be responsible should something go wrong.
Our mother accompanied my sister on a few occasions, but mostly I was her companion. It was my job to listen to what the doctor said, to be a second set of ears in case something was misunderstood. To keep an eye on her during treatment to make sure she wasn’t acting strangely or reacting to the drugs. It was my job to chat with her and keep her company, get her a blanket if she was cold, tell her it was okay to fall asleep, even snore if she wanted to.
We’d chat with other patients, too, and other companions. Everyone in the room would either chat, meeting new people every week, or sleep. Some of them snored loudly, and the rest of us would smile at it. Some of them wanted to gab, about anything and everything, and that was great. Meeting new people, chatting about all manner of things. Often the patients wanted to compare notes, about how they were feeling, how they were reacting to the chemotherapy drugs, what it was like to have to shave their heads ! They talked about losing their sense of taste, or odd things that made them nauseous. They talked about what hats were better, tricks to keeping one on at night to keep your head warm, what it was like to tattoo eyebrows so your coworkers didn’t notice you’d lost them.
As companions, we listened, joined in where we could. And the nurses were fantastic. Not only great at their jobs, but very chatty, very personable. They always remembered each patient and anything they’d talked about in past weeks. They were incredibly attentive, and could even change out IV bags without waking anyone.
It was an oddly happy place. Everyone there was like everyone else. Either you were hooked up to IV chemotherapy and praying it would work against whatever cancer was there, or you were a friend/family member of a cancer patient. No one had to explain anything to anyone, there were no forced expressions of false concern, or that uncomfortable reaction of someone who has no idea what to do or say.
But all too often there was something missing. The lovely white-haired woman who spent two hours sitting alone, thrilled to have us to talk to while she finished her treatment, who then had to walk alone to the bus to go home. She was a darling woman, who talked and talked of her grandson and her children, none of whom were there with her.
There was the very old, frail man who slept through his treatment, who was then so weak he couldn’t get up to go to the van that would take him back to the nursing home. So weak in fact, the nurses said he was severely anemic and had to go to the hospital instead of home. They phoned his daughter, and had to leave a message that her father was being admitted.
There was the great guy in the Elmer Fudd hat, who thought since it was New Year’s Eve they should add some Scotch to his IV. At least he had the patient next to him to chat with, until he left to go find a cab to take him home. Elmer Fudd hat slept after that, alone on New Year’s Eve in a chemotherapy treatment room.
There was a very sad woman, my age, who sat by a window staring out at the clouds one day. Occasionally she’d read her book. The nurse asked her about her kids, and where they were. Apparently her husband had taken them out shopping for the day, leaving her to sit alone, hoping and praying the chemicals in her arm would shrink her tumors.
It frustrated me, seeing so many people there, scared and alone, some of them dangerously frail, who all talked of family members that were too busy, too occupied to accompany them for just a few hours.
There were happy stories, too. People who had someone to care. The lovely woman in the silver/grey wig who was on the experimental drug, her half-sister sat with her each time. The extremely old woman who would come in every Thursday, hunched and wrinkled, and demand very loudly to know who would like to talk to her today! The lady who raised horses and taught school, who allowed herself one pity day when her cancer spread to her abdomen and she found out she wasn’t ever going to be rid of it. Her husband would shower her with magazines until she finally shoo’d him away to go shopping and come back for her later. He never wanted to go, but he would, then he’d call her on the cell phone while he was shopping. The nice, heavy-set woman who would talk with anyone around her, always cheerful, always willing to talk about scarves and the best way to wear a hat. She’d had her eyebrows tattooed on because she’s terminal, and wants to look good in the office.
Then there was my old high school teacher, a man my father had grown up with. He accompanied his wife, who was terribly weak and struggling. I was planning to chat him up the next time, but there was no next time. His wife died two weeks before Christmas.
People talk about A Day Of Service these days. Even Disneyland is offering a free ticket to their parks to anyone who gives a day of service to a qualifying organization. I think about those people who have no companions during treatment, and I think about the lady who came to sit with a man who was dropped off by his daughter for his chemo. She came a few minutes after they’d left, and brought him lunch, and snacks, and magazines, and sat with him for three hours so she could drive him home. She was just his neighbor.
My mother, who already makes quilts for Project Linus , is now making fleece blankets for the cancer treatment room. I’m participating in walks, to raise money and awareness, but I think about those people sitting there alone, and wonder how best I could help.
So the next time you feel like complaining – maybe you’re tired, feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, your cable isn’t working, you missed the big game, you’ve gained a few pounds, work has you stressed, you feel as if you’re being pulled in too many directions – put it into perspective.
If you’ve spent more than four hours this week complaining about your life, why not spend some time focusing on someone else. I bet you dollars to donuts, your problems will take care of themselves. If nothing else, you’ll have improved other’s by not complaining about yours, if only for a little while.
Power to the People!
Make Love, not War!
Could I sit with you for a little while?