The nurse took me back into the short-infusion room as I prepped for some blood work and a port flush. It’s a quick, 10 minute stop-in I must do once a month as long as I have my port-a-cath in (something to make blood work and infusions easier for me; i.e. no IV’s). We chatted as we walked, catching up on kids and life. She told me to pick an empty chair while she went to gather all the materials she needed, so I found one that would work best for her to have easy access to my port.
As I walked over, the elderly woman in the chair near me looked up. Shock registered in her eyes, and she half-gasped, half-spoke, “You’re not here for chemo, are you?!” I’m used to the look, the shock, the astonishment that someone my age would be in the cancer center much less have survived cancer 3 times. I smiled and shook my head. “Just blood work and a port flush. I finished chemo a while ago.” I settled in my chair and look at her, her hand grasped her husband’s and she jiggled her foot nervously. “How about you?” I asked.
She choked back tears, “My first treatment,” she whispered thickly, “I’m kinda nervous. But I got this port thing and it helps with the needle stick. Didn’t hurt too bad.”
I talked with her about how sorry I was, about how hard the first time is, the unknown, and encouraged her to ask about emla creme to help numb the pain. Then her nurse showed up, and I sat waiting for mine, trying not to listen, but I couldn’t help but hear.
And I remembered.
What it was like.
That first day when all the information crashes over you like a tidal wave and you’re gasping for breath, trying to comprehend what it means that you can’t change kitty litter and what do I do with my cats? Then the next wave comes and they’re telling you what foods to eat if your body responds one way, but if your body responds another, eat this food. *gasp* *breathe* *CRASH* Then it’s “here’s when you’ll lose your hair and here’s how you’ll feel and it’s mouth sores and tingling nerves and flu-like symptoms and oh, if your temperature gets here you call right away because you might need to be hospitalized and…” CRASH after CRASH after CRASH.
She asked repeated questions, trying to comprehend then going back and asking the same questions again, reeling. Then the nurse said, “I have to ask this question. What has the doctor said? Are we working toward a cure or is this for remission.”
The sobs erupted. And she spoke softly, resignedly, “There’s no cure. If this works, I have 4 years, if not, 6 months.”
I watched as the nurse hugged her, spoke reassurance to her, “Don’t lose hope, ma’am. A cure can be found in 4 years. We just never know. That’s why you fight, and I’m here to help you fight.”
My nurse showed up then, pulled the curtain around us for privacy, stretched out all her sharp and nasty looking implements and looked at me, shaking her head, “You okay?” She had seen my tears. I nodded. “Just brings it back. It’s just so awful…” She nodded, “Cancer stinks. That’s why I stay here… to keep helping you fight.”
She finished my labs and flush, band-aided me, and pulled the curtain back. The elderly woman was swallowing her umpteen number of pills to help with nausea and allergic reactions and staring at the bag of poison hovering over her. She smiled gently, “Good luck to you, little one.” she said, sadly.
I walked to her and grasped her hand, and she clung to mine, “And God be with you. I’m so sorry.” I said. Sobs took over again, and I knelt down, “May I hug you?” She nodded, and I held her while she cried, meeting the eyes of her husband’s. “Thank you,” he said, taking off his cap to me, “This helps.”
I squeezed her hand again and made my way out the labyrinth of hallways through the cancer center. I wish I had gotten her name, her number, something so I could encourage her that it’s worth it to fight. But I didn’t.
I wish I had given her my name, my number, something so she could ask questions of someone who’d been there so she didn’t feel so alone. But i didn’t.
Instead I went to my car and wept over a woman I didn’t know, a woman who was old enough to be my grandmother. I wept because it really doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s a tragedy.
I wept over a woman who is fighting for her life against a horrible monster.
But she is fighting.
Today (Sunday) is National Cancer Survivor’s Day… today I am thinking of her, of my friend, Kim, of so many others who are fighting, who have fought. Who are surviving, who have survived… I’m thinking about those who didn’t survive… of families who do not celebrate today, but rather grieve.
I’m thinking about the doctors who help us fight, the nurses who give us reassurance and hope, the people who run and walk and donate and encourage and fight with us…
And I am praying for a cure.