Last Friday the scheduled MRI for my dodgy left knee got dumped when I showed up at the wrong hospital. Actually I showed up at the right hospital for the first appointment I’d made, but an opportunity to visit a different medical facility for the MRI popped up in their schedule, and I simply forgot to change my calendar to direct me to the new location.
So I sat with the outpatient attendant looking at the schedule for replacement appointments and she looked up at me and said, “It’s interesting they scheduled your MRI at the Cancer center in Warrenville. Are you a patient there?”
I could see why she might ask. I’m thin. I have very little hair. And what hair I do have, I mow to the nubs with a clippers so that I don’t look like one of those yahoos from a country music band that grows bushy hair out the side of their head while shining their dome. I hate that look.
“No, I’m not a patient there…” I responded.
But for several years, I spent a lot of time at that cancer treatment center. That’s where my late wife had several series of chemotherapy treatments done. Most of them took several hours to complete. Whether I was working at the time or not, I’d sit in the chair across from her while the chemo dripped down tubes into her arm. It was a slow process and usually made her sick as a dog. But the treatment cycles worked until the wear and tear became too much for any human body to take.
Going through cancer treatment either as a patient or a caregiver is no easy deal. There is the physical aspect of treatment. Side effects and weird tastes in the mouth that make you not want to eat, and to top it all off, the constant risk of infection.
There is the emotional side of the treatment in which fear and worry and support and hope mix together like alphabet soup.
Then there is the spiritual side in which levels of deep concerns and hope mix in alternating wave of prayers and despair. To say that it’s a roller coaster at times is a severe understatement. And don’t even bother Googling “cancer” on the Internet. You’ll die on the spot as a hypochondriac. Your time would be better off spent trying to stare into the face of God, which has been known to kill people as well. But at least you’d go quickly.
During our cancer treatment journey, which lasted eight years, we saw the best and worst of what medicine has to offer. The cancer treatment center at which my MRI was scheduled was the height of positive design. Patients had privacy if they liked with cleanly lit rooms and outward facing windows. That was helpful during some difficult days. That can all be credited to what the medical world calls Planetree design. That is, create an environment where patients sit in pleasant surroundings filled with natural colors and organic imagery. That is a wonderful counterpoint to what hospitals once were; antiseptic, cold and horrific.
That’s how it was at another facility in a different hospital system, where the cancer treatment room was a big square in which all the patients faced each other toward the middle. That meant you sat there staring at people across from you. Each of the patients was tubed up with their own concoction of cancer treatment fluids. These dripped down the tubes as people sat there reading or simply being, because that’s all you felt like doing. Some talked, but not that many because conversations were never private.
We’d seen the entire range of the human condition at those treatment centers over the years. Some were grateful and resolute. Others were bitchy and impatient. Most just wanted to get through the day and hope the side effects would not hit them too fast or too hard. And what can I say about the nurses who preside over all this? They are, for the most part, saintly in their duties. Humanity begs more from them than any other profession on earth.
Because when people say that “cancer sucks,” they may be speaking sincerely, but one wonders if the world at large even knows the half of it. Nurses do. God bless them.
That’s why we appreciated the positive approach at that cancer treatment center where there were private “rooms” covered by curtains. The nurses could keep an attentive eye on everyone’s needs, but weren’t traipsing back and forth between patients like worker ants doting on a queen.
Because it’s true that cancer patients get enough “attention” in their lives that they don’t really want. The caps and scarves and loss of hair. The fatigue and numbness. The questions and concerned looks. All cost people normality.
There were times when I felt awfully guilty going out for a run or a ride when my wife was back home lying on the couch sick from chemo or too tired to even walk around the back yard. But I kept exercising because it was sanity that I craved, and a release from the tension of caregiving.
As for the millions of cancer patients facing some sort of the disease, many people do come through cancer treatment and live on. Those “success stories” inspire others in their journey.
But one does have to be careful with the manner in which success is characterized. I considered my late wife’s journey enormously successful. She lived eight years with ovarian cancer, a disease that takes out 6,000 women a year on average. Another 14,000-20000 each year are diagnosed. Last night I read that it might be detectable as early as six years out when it actually generates down in the Fallopian tubes. They’re still a ways away from a cure, but they’re trying.
So there are some kudos in order. She was tough as hell when she needed to be. Way more than even I knew at times. She was a private person, and there were times when I knew that she was holding back some sensation or pain that raised fear within her. That was her way. Her character demanded it.
Don’t get me wrong. She was not immune to the difficulties. After so many times sitting in that chair while the poison dripped in her arteries, she developed a psychosomatic response to her arrival. She’d throw up a little just by sitting down in that chair. Just the thought of going through it all over again was enough to make her sick.
One day, while she was trying to choke down some noxious drink in preparation for a colonoscopy, I got impatient with her and stepped out in the yard to egg her on. She looked at me with such ferocity I stopped cold in my tracks. “Fuck you!” she hissed.
I deserved that.
So it might have been an interesting experience to get my MRI at the cancer treatment center that we’d visited so many times. But as it’s worked out, I’ll probably be just a regular Joe at the regular hospital getting a regular old MRI so that I can figure out if there’s something clinically wrong with my left knee, and what to do about it.
In the meantime, I’m able to run again and bought a little black strap that seems to be holding the vital tendons in place a bit. If only all of life were so simple, and offered such cures.
If only. And if you know someone going through cancer treatment, reach out to them with a simple phone call. Ask if there’s anything you can do, even just to talk a few minutes. The journey to remission is full of stepping stones. Be one of them.
Christopher Cudworth is the author of The Right Kind of Pride: A chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community. Available on Amazon.com.