Thursday a week ago, I tuck a couple magazines in beside me as I settle into the vinyl recliner and wait for the nurse to come put in the IV for my third Herceptin infusion. These infusions have been weekly to start and, after next week, will be every three weeks for a year.
Thank goodness that Herceptin is the monoclonal antibody part of my chemo cocktail, it only kills cells that are making too much of a growth factor called Her-2. As a result, it doesn’t have many side effects unless you happen to be one of the unlucky few who suffer allergic reactions and heart damage. I have so far escaped those icky complications. Herceptin days are starting to feel routine, a pinch as the nurse slides the IV needle into my hand, a couple magazines or The New York Times on my iPhone, the cup of hot chocolate that is becoming my chemo day indulgence. After an hour or so, it’s done.
I start to settle in for some quiet time. But then I notice a lady sitting on the other side of the chemo bay. She has a solid, middle-of-the-country look to her. Ample, but not fat. Sensible shoes. No makeup. Mousy brown hair with a frizz at the ends, a home perm. She’s sitting next to a thin, thin man in an embroidered shirt, designer jeans and Italian shoes. He’s the one with the IV in his arm. He stares avidly at an iPad, ignoring her.
She catches my eye and smiles. She’s heard the nurses ask my birthdate – two nurses check my birthdate and patient ID every time they hook up an IV bag- and identify the medicine, Herceptin.
“Breast cancer?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “But I guess I’m lucky. They caught it early, only stage Ib, but the tumor was an aggressive type, so that’s why I’m doing the chemo.”
“I had it ten years ago,” she says. “It was bad, so bad. They had me on all kinds of drugs. Took one of my breasts. I lost my hair.”
She doesn’t seem to have much of a handle on the scientific or diagnostic details of her breast cancer, but continues in this vein for about 15 minutes. The cancer was bad, bad. Drugs, lots of drugs. Terrible. She was living in Texas then, now she’s in Oklahoma City. The more she talks, the more her fashionable, hipster son seems to try to mind meld with his iPad.
Then he gets up to use the bathroom, pulling his IV pole along with him.
After he’s out of earshot, I ask, “You’re here taking care of your son?”
“Yes. I’ve been here since early October.” she says. “He was running a marathon this summer, when his stomach started to hurt. He’s 46. They did some tests, and found a tumor the size of your fist in his stomach. Can you imagine that? How could it get so big without any symptoms? It’s spread to his liver and his lungs. He’s had a brain scan this week, but I don’t think he really wants to know the results. He’s already had so many drugs, so many drugs.”
Her son rattles back with his IV pole and smiles at me. I ask about his marathon running and his work. He’s worked for a real estate management firm for years, he says. He doesn’t say so, but he obviously came to San Francisco to build a new life, to be himself away from Texas or Oklahoma, to enjoy a city with a vibrant gay community. In the space of three months, he’s gone from a healthy marathoner with a social life to a gaunt, slightly lonely figure fighting for time, living with his mother as a house guest/help mate. I can’t even imagine his physical and emotional turmoil.
As we chat, he pulls out a giant bag of candy corn and starts eating handfuls. Me, if I was in his position, I’d go for Belgian fries and cream sauces. But if candy corn works for him, then God bless.
The next day, I meet a young woman for lunch at a Vietnamese place across from the hospital. We met during my first chemo infusion. She was diagnosed in Kona, Hawaii, but has come to the mainland to get the best treatment. She’s living with her Mom in Concord, a suburb about 30 miles east of San Francisco. She’ll be going up to the infusion center after our lunch.
When I last saw her three weeks earlier, she had beautiful, long , thick, black hair. Now, she’s wearing a wig. It’s cute, I say, and it is, a perky black bob. It’s scratchy and hot, she says.
She doesn’t eat much during our lunch. She’s getting Adriamycin and Taxol, a much stronger protocol than mine. She says she’s fighting nausea all the time. She has no energy. She’s suffering from neuropathy, the tingling and burning in her hands and feet.
But what sounds worst of all is that she’s living back at home with her mother. “I tell her she’s crazy,” she says sadly. “She’s always been crazy.”
She doesn’t really explain in detail how her mother is crazy, but I’m gathering it’s the self-centered, my-way-or-the-highway kind of crazy. Her mother, who’s 80, never turns the TV off and the house is small. My mother, who’s 82, never turns the TV either, but at least the house is big and it’s possible to escape Oprah and Dancing with the Stars. My new friend doesn’t have that luxury. Two of her siblings live in the Bay Area, but haven’t been supportive, she says. They’re too busy with their own families, with their own problems. No, they don’t have time to drive her to chemo. So she takes BART, by herself. Her Mom and a friend will pick her up afterward. Who knows what the age-old family dynamics are that result in her going to chemo alone, but she says she misses her friends and her life in Kona so much that she’s often thought about just leaving, just going back to her real home, in Hawai’i.
But she knows her care will be better here. She was misdiagnosed in Kona, a depressingly common story among women docs seem to think “too young” to have breast cancer, and she’s afraid to go back to what she calls the “rustic” hospital there. Instead, she says she’ll continue with the infusions in San Francisco. The rest of the time, she says, she sits in a recliner, fighting the fatigue and nausea and glues her eyes to her Mac. She, like the thin man, wants to mind meld with a different place, away from old family patterns.
But cancer won’t let her. And it won’t let the thin man either.