For the last year I’ve been sitting with my wife, Teresa, as she goes through chemo therapy in a ward that we share with about 24 other souls at a time every three weeks. Cancer is non-judgemental, it attacks across all ages, colors, income levels, and religions. We share our treatment time with people we might not otherwise get to know, having a bag full of chemicals flow into your arm is an instant equalizer, we all have something to talk about. I’m writing from the room now, in the midst of a sea of cancer and hope, watching some familiar and some new faces get pumped full of stuff that is so nasty it might take your skin off. (Teresa is past the chemo and radiation stage and only getting something called Herceptin, 3 treatments left of a miracle drug that is not considered “chemo,” rather it is a “biological”. Whatever that means. The drug has saved her life and as we sit here, we hope that everyone has the same results that she has, although we know that isn’t possible.)
A year of visiting a place like this will effect you, no matter how hard you were when it started. You are watching people fight off death with quiet resolve while hoping to share hope. Hope is a funny thing, you grasp for it even when there is little reason to trust it, you still grasp it, the life line of hope you throw to the person in the chair next to you might make all the difference. You learn to recognize the look that passes between two patients eyes, the understanding that they are sisters, the look of the caregivers and patient advocates, “what can we do to help?” We see the people who come in alone, and the couples who have been together for a lifetime, wondering if their time together might last just a little longer. We all share fear even if we try to ignore it, we all understand that we are not in control of our destinies, that’s up to the product in the plastic IV bags, the doctors, and a higher power.
When you experience a year like this, you see ignorance, prejudice, and hatred for what they are: Sins. You understand that we are all the same, that our differences don’t outweigh our similarities, that we are all only here for a while. You gain a little wisdom, you understand that things like fear, hope, and mortality are universal. You understand that we all face the inevitable. Some of us find God, some of us get pissed, and all of us get humble.
Outside this room, it is so easy to judge people by the bumper sticker sized labels we put on them. We generalize, assume the worst, and come from a place of fear. Someone says “Muslim” and we think “terrorist.” Someone else says “Black teen in a hooded sweatshirt” and we think “Criminal.” Someone says “Vegetarian” and we think, “hippie.” Labels, in the chemo room, don’t mean much of anything. Even saying one has cancer is too broad a label, cancer is a nasty bastard, it reacts differently with everybody it attacks, every cancer case is somewhat unique, finding the weakness that crosses all labels.
Our year here is coming to a close, three more treatments, and we get to go home together. We won’t ever completely leave the room, watching so many people face the unfaceable changes you forever. You leave understanding the good fortune we have in living in an age when science has come so far, when medicine can save so many. You leave understanding that cancer isn’t cured or prevented by some guy selling powdered supplements. You learn to believe in miracles and that life goes on. If it does. You learn that you are not your diagnosis, that having rougue cancer cells in you does not define you and that we do have control over how we respond to life’s situations.
In the end, you leave better for having the experience, the price of time and discomfort offset by gratitude and appreciation. In the end you understand that love is a powerful tool, that medicine works, and that life is a journey that we all share. We have treated this part of our journey like an adventure, one we get to experience together, to grow closer through and to survive together. I won’t miss the hours I’ve spent in this room, but I am glad I got to be here.