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Thoughts and Ruminations in the Chemo Room
Sandra sat herself down in one of the Lazy Boys placed in a line across the room. Actually it’s more like she gently sidled up to the front of the chair, and then dropped herself into the soft cushion with a thump—like the chair was unexpectedly low. The chairs faced the big floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the deep green trees and bushes, so lush in the spring, filled with lots of cement colored birds. I sat in one of the black metal chairs with the attached cushions on the seat and back, and looked for the stacks of magazines scattered across the room. The magazines used to be better—more up-to-date. Now after three years of accompanying Sandra on her weekly visit, I think I’ve seen every one of them, many times. It’s like Dr. G stopped subscribing to magazines. Maybe with wireless Internet available in the clinic, and laptops and smart phones, no one wants to read magazines anymore. Well I guess that is the state of the magazine business, and the newspaper business, and I hate to say, the shoe business as well--nothing is the same anymore.
Before I choose my magazine, I go to the ever-present basket of chips. Lays Potato chips, Sun Chips, Fritos, Chex Mix, pretzels, and Dorito Chips. As I reach my hand into the basket I always wonder how these bag of not-so-good-for-you treats are available in a chemo clinic. What the hell, I’ll take a bag for myself and give another one to Sandra.
I then flipped through a dozen or so magazines stacked on a little table, and grabbed one. It was kind of scruffy, not new and crisp like they used to be. Most of them have torn edges and the pages sometimes have gooey stuff on them--makes you kind of wonder what kind of food a previous reader was eating. I don’t find most of magazines in the clinic very interesting. Too many Cosmo types. Too many women's magazines that ask questions like “how can you lose belly fat?” or the ones with the celebrity profiles of Jennifer Aniston or Jessica Alba, or Lady Gaga. There used to be lots of car magazines—not that I am a car buff or anything, but those all seem to be gone. I liked reading reviews of the new cars. How much horsepower they had, how they handled the curves---torque, comfort, interior, ergonomic knobs and buttons, the works. That way if I get into a conversation with another guy, I’ll have something to talk to him about. I was never good at small talk with other men. Ball games just don’t do it for me, even though I read the box scores every morning when I’m sitting on the toilet, and I love playing sports, but I’d rather have my teeth pulled than talk about them. I find it easier to talk to women—don’t ask me why.
I also like the ocean homes and garden magazines. I like the immaculate houses—the gardens in a state of perfection, (wondering how I can’t even get my grass to grow), and the living quarters that don't look anything like my own living quarters. I love the big windows, and the pools, and the view, and the patios. I guess we can all dream. I watch my wife as poison drips through her veins.
I look around the oncology clinic, and it’s definitely clean, not really sterile clean, but clean nonetheless. It’s different than a hospital, it doesn’t have that antiseptic hospital smell nor the hospital crowds—where people always seem to be coming and going—too much hustle and bustle. At the clinic, the colors on the walls are pretty, and the artwork quite attractive, like someone actually spent time and money decorating. It’s more like a nice office—almost homey, but not quite. Nurses walk back and forth between the enclosed glass back room where the computers and drugs are kept and the area where the infusion machines sit next to the Lazy Boys. The nurses carry clear bags of drugs about the size of medium-sized fish—but squishier—and see-through, with holes on the top so they could hook them on to the automatic infusion machines. I’m in the shoe business so I take notice of the shoes the nurses wear. Danskos, Crocs, Nurse Mates, Nikes, Sauconys, Merrills, Alegrias. (It makes me feel good that I can pick out the right pair of shoes for them—so their feet don’t hurt at the end of the day.) You get used to the beeping sound the infusion machines make when the fluid is not feeding properly into the patients veins.
Miriam, Sandra’s oncology nurse, who herself is undergoing breast cancer treatment, and who just came back to work, stops when she sees Sandra and asks, ”How are you feeling today, Sweetie?” “Pretty good. I had a very good week.” I looked at Miriam with a “don’t believe everything you hear” smile. It was a good week if one happens to like having diarrhea, or feeling feverish, or so lethargic one cannot get out of bed. But yea, it was a pretty good week. Everything becomes relative when you have terminal cancer. You know when the bad days and weeks hit--those can be really, really bad. So bad that you don’t have the energy to stand up, and if you do stand up, you feel like you’re going to throw up. So you force yourself to sit still and not move, until the nausea medication takes hold and the nausea goes away. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. Of course I'm saying this as if it was happening to me personally, when it's my wife who's actually going through all this crap. But after all these years, (nine), of living with someone who has cancer, it's almost as if the cancer has made its way to me.
I sat reading an architectural magazine, one with beautiful homes and gardens and pools on top of hillsides looking over the Pacific Ocean, probably in Malibu. Who lives in these places? How can they afford them for God’s sake. Do they get cancer too? Do they go to cancer clinics like the one we’re sitting in right now?
I look around the room and am confirmed again that cancer is a non-discriminating disease. Rich or poor, young or old, men or women, black or white, it doesn’t matter, we can all be subject to its force. I look up from my magazine and see the room is now filled. All the Lazy Boys are in use and all the infusion machines have fluids running through them. Each one has at least two different bags on top, some have three, and the lucky patients have four. There is not much talking in the room. But that changes. Sometimes the room is filled with chatter, with most of the patients, it seems, in good spirits. Which is in itself quite amazing. Cancer is bad, but the treatment is usually worse. So after getting your body filled with poison you get to spend the next few days or weeks feeling like shit. It’s the treatment that knocks you down, gets your blood counts real low, makes you anemic, gives you hives, gives you diarrhea, gives you constipation. The cancer just kind of sits there for the ride. Sometimes the drugs do their job and knock the cancer down, but often like a tough boxer, it gets off the canvas and is ready to fight again. In fact that happens way too often. The worst part of cancer is definitely its recurrence. The first time around seems beatable, the second time less so. So it always strikes me that most patients usually seem to be in a pretty good mood, unless of course the pain and nausea is overwhelming—then their mood dampens. Sometimes screams are heard as nurses try to get needles into deflated veins. But there are always those that sit in their Lazy Boy over-stuffed recliner and show no emotion at all. I guess they have come, or are trying to come to grips with their reality. Or, maybe they’re just too tired and exhausted to show much of anything.
All the patients are sitting there with either an IV in their arms or lines running to their ports implanted in their chests. These chemo treatments costs thousands of dollars each. The shots are hundreds of dollars, so are the lab tests, and just about everything else administered in the clinic. These numbers add up pretty quickly—until the total bills come to hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of which, thank God, is paid by the insurance companies. Thank you insurance company! But what about those unfortunate souls who don’t have insurance? Are they getting the benefit of this type of treatment? And if not, what the hell are they doing? I don't even want to think about that--I have enough on my mind.
We all sit here. The patients in the Lazy Boys and family members sitting across from them, in chairs less-Lazy-Boy- like. It feels like a club. A friendly club where voices are very soft, and not much conversation takes place, but at least we do meet on a regular basis.