For the last several months I have been keeping a regular appointment with an oncologist. I’m not the one receiving care, however. My friend has lung cancer, and I have been accompanying her as she receives weekly doses of chemotherapy.
These cancer treatments are administered in an “infusion laboratory.” If you have never been in one, and I hope you never have the occasion, they are all fairly uniform in design and purpose. The “lab” is a simple room with comfortable, leather lounge chairs lining the walls. Each chair has an infusion pump that pushes what everyone prays is cancer-killing compounds through the body.
Competent, smiling nurses respond to the needs of the patients and the beeping machinery. Doctors float in and out of the room as needed. Faces grimace over the prospects of yet another needle stick; cancer war stories are told and retold; and blankets are handed out with sips of ginger ale and nibbles of saltine crackers to ease the nausea.
There are those tucked into those chairs who look well, and others who are obviously ill. There are those who have been making pilgrimages to the lab for years, and those who are newbies. Some are alone, and some are with friends or family. Some discretely hide their baldness and emaciation, and others wear the rigors of treatment like a badge of honor.
And when it comes to coping, the differences are manifold as well. Some are in shock over their prognosis. Some are depressed. Some have a stoic, Zen-like acceptance. Some keep smiling no matter what, and some are as mad as hell – at life, God, physicians – at anything or anyone who can be held responsible.
Then some patients have all these feelings simultaneously, jumbled together at once. Don’t be fooled: Coping with a major illness is not as orderly as textbooks led us to believe. It is a hot mess of total emotion when facing one’s personal mortality, and everyone who stands on that precipice feels everything at one point or another in the process – and sometimes these are all felt at once.