The room was packed. Well, it felt cramped. I didn’t want to be close to anyone. Who knew – they may all of have been carrying some sort of cold virus that I could contract and end up with a cold that would delay the start of my chemo? People ranged in age, ranged in size, ranged in looks. Some in their 70’s, 60’s… and here I sat – in my 50’s. I was the youngest one there. I had hair. So did they. For now. I didn’t feel that I fit in. I didn’t want to look at anyone else – nor did it appear they wanted to look at me. None of us wanted to be there – but knew we needed to be. There – in the chemo class at Royal Victoria Hospital.
The lady who greeted us was pleasant. She was cute, young, and had a healthy smile. I wouldn’t have wanted an old, gnarly person to have been my conduit to this new life of “chemo” treatments. Kevin and I sat down on the far end of the room beside the window. I needed to be near the sun – it was the thing with which I had the most familiarity in that room at that moment, other than Kevin. It was like having stepped onto a different planet where a different language was being introduced: injections, vomiting, hair-loss, mouth sores. It was not a romantic language by any stretch of the imagination. It was cold, clinical, and it was my future.
“Welcome”, the lady began. She had a name – I knew she did. I had lost it almost the moment she had said it. I didn’t retain much during that time. I didn’t want to. I knew I had to. I needed to learn so that I could fight better, fight stronger, fight longer. I took out my pen and journal. My strategy was to take copious quantities of notes for two reasons: the first was to keep myself from crying – distractions were good – and two to actually try to process what was being introduced as “necessary” information.
“I know this will be difficult for you”, she continued. “Please ask questions that are general and if you have more specific questions, try to save them for the end. I address individual questions after the presentation. None of your treatments are necessarily the same as you may all be given different medications depending on the type of cancer you have. Don’t compare your treatment to someone else – they will be different.” And on and and on it went.
Kevin and I sat through the hour long powerpoint presentation. I noted that it was important to prepare a mouth rinse to avoid getting mouth sores. I noted that constipation was likely as a side-effect of my chemo. I also noted that the air was tense. It was not an audience to which I would have liked to be speaking. We were students who were serious, all right. We were all facing a life or death situation. Yet, we were good students. We took turns asking questions. We were polite. I looked around the room while others watched the presentation and observed that each person had a significant other with him/her. I tried to determine which of the pair was to face chemo. Which one looked ill – which one looked healthy and happy? Which person was affected more by this meeting? It was difficult to tell. Everyone was somber – to some extent. Cancer did not affect just one member of the family – it touch all. It was not simply a disease of the body – but a disease of the mind. To win, one would have to battle both body and mind.
An hour after she began, the lady closed. “Good luck to everyone.” What else do you say? Quietly, we all stood, tucked in our chairs and turned towards the exit.
“Would it be possible to tour the chemo suite?” I inquired suddenly. I felt compelled to see where the “deed” would be done – in just six days.
“Yes. I can take you. Although we don’t do tours anymore. We felt like some of the patients felt they were on display and it made them feel uncomfortable. Since your chemo is next week, I can just take you up.”
I was struck by how cold it was. Then, by how big it was. There were so many chairs! The chairs were large, reclining, lazy boy kind of chairs. Each was flanked by an IV pole. There were six chairs to a pod and four pods as far as I could see. As it turns out – there were more pods and chairs around the corner. It was quiet save for the occasional “beep” of the machines which indicated it was time to change the medications. “I can’t believe how many people there are receiving chemo!” I offered to our tour guide.
“Yes. And there are many more who take their chemo at home.”
(What? How the heck does that happen I challenged under my breath – not really wanting an answer.)
It was clean, bright, and friendly. People were smiling, laughing, greeting others as though they were long lost friends. They called each other by name and teased one another giddily. It was not at all what I had expected. I was relieved. I could do this. We could do this. I turned to Kevin. “I’m ready.” We held hands and left the chemo suite. We would return in six days.
September 19, 2014, one year ago today, I ventured into an education which would open my eyes to an entirely new world. It opened all of our eyes, our hearts, and our minds. It was to be an experience of – well – a life-time. And for that – I will be forever grateful.