The sun is shining. Thank God. I can handle the cold as long as it is accompanied by sun. I love the way it cascades through the many windows and glass stairwells here at Royal Victoria Hospital. It seems to penetrate even the darkest of corners and dullest of surfaces.
I have an hour and a half to wait until I see Dr. Singh, whose decision will see me in chemo tomorrow or not. I hope that gives the lab enough time before my doctor’s appointment as they typically require two hours. There was a delay in the blood work lounge. A curtain was drawn and someone ushered out on a stretcher. It was rather disconcerting – but I guess these things happen when you are in a place where sick people come to seek treatment. Still. It reminds me of my own mortality. I think I’ve had enough of that lately.
The up side to my wait was meeting Francis. You know those people who just look like you can talk to them and they will actually converse? Well, that was Francis. She was number 20 on the roster to get her blood work done. Her face was kind. She wore a tuque from which there appeared to be locks of hair making their escape. I found out later – these were the only locks she had left and were purposefully mastered to give the appearance of a full head of hair. She had decided to shave them off later that day since they looked odd compared to the rest of her bald head. We eventually were bold enough, she and I, to share our interest about each others’ cancers.
“What kind of cancer do you have?” I inquired tentatively.
“Ovarian. Stage 3.” Francis responded. “And you?”
“I have found the chemo to be much worse than the surgery. I was up and walking that very day.”
Of course, we had to go on and compare more details of our journey as it is always remarkable to find someone who has been on the same or similar cancer path as you. Especially at times when you think you are all alone. We, as patients, were advised in the beginning to not swap stories as everyone’s journey is so different. Everyone will have a different chemo cocktail and a different process. True. But I have found that the comforts of comradery far outweigh the risks of discovering differences.
“How did you know you were sick?” I inquired.
“I thought I had a hernia.”
“Me too!” I exclaimed. “Well, in addition to what I had thought to be a gall bladder problem.” Truthfully, I had forgotten about that “symptom”. I had asked a couple friends of mine if they had ever had a hernia and to “check” the bulge on my abdomen just above my belly-button. Yes. Now I remember. And it was the same location as Francis had described hers.
“Did you have to have a colonoscopy?” I continued. I felt that was an important question. The two things that have concerned me the most along this journey have been my hair and having to have a colostomy. The hair – falls in second place to my concern of having bowel trouble and a bag.
“Yes,” she replied. “I celebrated when I found out I was clear. For so long I had worried about my bowels, but did nothing about it. So, this forced my hand. And I’m so very grateful.”
I chuckled out loud as I had done the same thing. Who knew that such joy could come from a clean colon?
“I am on that new abdominal treatment. I am patient number two.”
“I met patient number one during my last chemo,” I explained with great enthusiasm. “My husband had inquired about it as he had read up on its effectiveness, but no one at that time had been trained. How do you like it?” I asked.
“Oh – well – I’m not too sure yet as there had been a kink in the line the first time and so I only got a half treatment. I guess I’ll have a better feeling for it on Wednesday. I am more inconvenienced by the hydration curtain. It keeps me sitting for four days.”
“Yikes.” I affirmed. “It must be frustrating to not have the ability to get up and get around.” I had no idea what a hydration curtain was but I was then resolved to continue to suck at my water bottle to avoid the restrictions of that process! So far, I had been so good.
“I’ve gained so much weight.” Francis continued. “I lost ten pounds after surgery, but it seems that I gained it all back. They tell you to eat little bits all day long and so I do. But, by the end of the day I realized that I’ve been eating all day.”
“I hear you! I lost ten pounds after surgery too. Not sure how much I’ve gained back, but it took me a while to get my appetite back. It I eat too much, my shoulders hurt. I guess that is it’s own weight control.”
The more we chatted, the more we learned about each other, about our families, and our plans for the summer. She had booked a Viking cruise to Budapest before she learned about her cancer. She was worried that leaving the country only four weeks after the end of her chemo may not be a wise thing to do. But, would it be better to recover at home or on a cruise ship? She wanted to live and that meant really live. I understood.
We learned that cancer had brought us both a new perspective on life. I learned she had been through this process once before with her husband. I was saddened to hear that he went through two years of treatment – and passed away last year. I didn’t want to ask if it was cancer that caused his demise. We became blood-work friends. Waiting in this lab, sharing cancer tales, is an almost intimate experience that no one forgets. Francis and I developed a special relationship that almost always ends with a regretful departure. To her, I was more than number 36. To me, she was more than number 20.
Our developing relationship was interrupted by the lab technicians’ request to see, “number 20?”. “It was very nice to meet you and I wish you all the best on your treatments.” closed Francis.
“You too. And enjoy your cruise! I’ll tell number 1 that I met you, number 2 recipient of that new procedure!”
We laughed and bid each other adieu. It was a sad moment, but happy in that we knew each of us were about to take the next step on our journeys.
My blood was drawn quickly and with very little fan fare. Not liking to stay in the lab to wait until my doctor’s appointment, I exited the cancer care treatment centre and found my seat in the foyer in the sun.
Here I sit. Table for three. The chair facing me is vacant. The chair beside me holds my purse and entertainment paraphernalia. It must be shift change as the foyer is filling up and the smells of pickles, french fries, and hot coffee teases my nostrils. Chairs are dragged across the floor as they jockey for position with their occupants. There is a din of chatter which is less than discernible. I catch the odd word here and there: snow, cold,wind. Another common ground that I have found with these strangers! We all share our eagerness for spring. Here, there are patients, visitors, and nurses. They shuffle up the stairs, down the stairs, and through the swirling glass doors. The aroma of some sort of flavoured tea reaches me. It is sweet. It smells thick. Is that peanut butter? No! It can’t be. We are in a peanut free environment. As quickly as it comes, it goes to be replaced by the faint smell of some sort of hair product. A man sits quite still in front of me. His glasses propped up on top of his head. The white of the frames continue the white stripe of his coat as they seem to stream-line together in complete unison.
I wonder what Francis is up to? Did she pass her blood work test? Will I ever see her again? As much as I’d like to make her acquaintance again – I don’t. It would be nice if we never saw each other again – to be forever cured of this disease we share and shared.