It was September of 2017 so you’ll forgive me if there are large gaps in my memory – I can barely remember if I’ve had one or five cups of coffee (it was five. it was definitely five.) in the morning and now we’re talking about something that happened almost four years ago. There are moments, though, that I’ll never forget and part of me has always wanted to share the experience.
It had been a whirlwind of bad news and international plane rides. It was fear of the unknown followed by settling into some sort of forced routine. To give you an idea of how topsy turvy my life was, I was supposed to be in Ireland when I had the first meeting with the oncologist. And all that stuff with Avalanche, well, it was just beginning so breast cancer was just one of many traumas that were circling the drain.
Breast Cancer at 38 years old. A stunning bit of information to digest yet all I could think about was, when can I get back to work, but that’s a story for another day. One of the only bits of early good news was when they changed their minds and said I wouldn’t need chemo. They had been dead set – 95% chance of chemo given my “young” age. But…they changed their minds. “Just” radiation. Six weeks, five times a week.
So, I got something akin to a frequent flyer card but for the hospital. I was officially in the express lane of cancer. I felt oddly special, having a preferred parking pass and a card with my name on it that meant I could walk right in, not have to deal with reception and be quickly whisked away to be zapped with a radiation laser. (Please do not judge my lack of medical prowess…there’s really no “zapping” but you get my drift.) Of all the people involved in the process, and it’s true that you have an entire medical team, the radiation therapists (technicians? I dunno….) were the ones I got to know the best. I typically got up to go to work at 6 am and then hurried over to my radiation appointment in the afternoon. This routine meant that I saw familiar faces most of the time.
The actual radiation went quickly but I spent A LOT of time in the internal waiting room. A lot of time reading magazines and wondering about the lives of other people. I went to the appointments alone 99% of the time and that was ok with me, for the most part, but occasionally it could be a very lonely experience. It often struck me that I was always the youngest person in the room and sometimes the healthiest “looking” so it was not out of the norm for me to get an inquisitive stare or two. I think people felt sorry for me. I was young(er), alone, and looked like I didn’t belong. I guess there are worse things.
I’ve always been a people watcher. I am my mother’s daughter after all. When I was younger, mom and I would go to public places (the mall, the airport, etc) and just kind of take in the ‘goings on’. We’d sit and watch people walk by, take in the way they were dressed, who they were with, what they were talking about (if we were lucky enough to be in ear shot), and create stories about their lives. I can remember being in Italy with mom on my senior trip and both of us were frustrated that everyone was speaking Italian – how in the heck were we supposed to eavesdrop if we couldn’t understand the language?! The nerve!
Given this aspect of my personality, it should come as no surprise that my intellectual curiosity was in overdrive in that waiting room. People would come and go from all ages and walks of life. Older couples, middle-aged women and men etc. Some were laughing, some seemed introspective. There were people doing crosswords, listening to books or podcasts, reading books. I wanted to know ALL of their stories. Yet, it all seemed so utterly normal…and very…very quiet. I am sure that people occasionally talked about their personal experiences – how long they had been coming for treatment, the severity of their illness, logistics – who knows. I am sure it happened but it never happened to me. I was occasionally greeted with a warm and empathetic smile but I never had the opportunity to really engage with anyone there. I guess it can be a private journey or maybe people just thought I wanted my journey to be that…private.
Then, one day, something happened that made me view the waiting room (and its inhabitants) in a whole new light. I was about half-way through treatment. I’d already had my lumpectomy, gotten my plaster immobility cast made (and no, I didn’t get to take it home when radiation was complete!), and received my blue dot tattoos – they help the technicians position the gigantic machine to a specific area. Also, I’d grown oddly comfortable being nekked from the waist up. You stop worrying about the sheer volume of people who’ve seen your jubblies after about 100. My daily appointments had become second hat, in short. But this day was different. On this day, I was a few minutes early and when I walked into the radiation treatment room, there was still evidence of their prior “customer”. On the radiation slab (I don’t know what else to call it?) lay what I can only describe as a facial torture device. A plastic tomb for the noggin. Ok ok, it was a radiation mask but it was terrifying. Friends, let me tell you. Never have I been more grateful for “just” having breast cancer.
My thoughts took a turn. I started thinking about all of those people in the waiting room that I’d encountered over the past several weeks. Which poor soul was the one that had to come in this room to be treated for brain cancer? Which person had to remain calm as the technicians put this Hannibal Lector-ish mask over their face while they waited for radiation to be pointed at their most primary of organs? I was never one to feel sorry for myself. I’m not a “why me” person. Sure, I’ll admit to having occasions where I considered that I wasn’t being treated fairly (see…What’s Fair) but generally speaking, I tend to react to conflict or difficult situations with a march forward kind of zeal. And that is how I was handling breast cancer and the subsequent treatment. But I’ll admit, I was sometimes irritated with having to “go through this”. I was occasionally impatient with the process but there…in that moment…I was so very thankful for my version of cancer which, by comparison to this person, was probably a cakewalk.
I was also very very sad. In my little section of the hospital, there were only adults. Another wing was dedicated to the treatment of children and I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere some time that day, there would be an innocent child who would have a very similar mask put over their face. I am certain that the radiation staff in the children’s wing were more than adept at handling the emotions of children. I am sure that they make it as light and “fun” as possible but it hurt my heart to think of all the little ones who had come through the same initial doors that I walked through and were facing cancer treatment for diseases that were far more serious than mine.
And so I prayed. For the first time in probably decades. I closed my eyes while the machine was buzzing overhead and had a little conversation with God – who I had been out of touch with for quite some time. It would be another couple of years before I fully re-established my relationship with the Big Guy but something compelled me to reach out in the moment and ask Him to shelter those poor children and anyone who was coming into the hospital for cancer treatment…or anything else.
So, I guess what I’ll say is thank you cancer. Thank you medieval torture device. Thank you for bringing me back home.