It’s a week since the third infusion and I’m only now feeling well enough to write about it.
In many ways, Infusion 3 is just like the previous two poison parties: show the ID and insurance card, confirm my name and birthday endlessly, needle stick for blood work, up to the 2nd Floor Breast Care Center for weigh-in, blood pressure, check up, discussion of chemo side effects, new prescriptions to counteract said side effects; then up to the 5th floor Infusion Center, ID/birthday/weigh-in/blood pressure routine again, wet my hair for the cold cap, fit cold cap, pop Vicodin, bring cold cap down to 5 degrees Celcius, needle stick for the IV, then drip drip for several hours: Herceptin, Carboplatin, Taxotere.
Infusion no longer seems scary, and in a way, that’s a little scary. The human capacity to adjust to horror is really quite amazing. It’s no doubt a survival adaptation: “Keep your head down and pay no attention to those corpses on the side of the road.” “Don’t worry, you don’t need to know about that family that was whisked away in the night.” “What homeless person slumped outside my office?” This “hear no evil/see no evil” behavior may secure individual survival and a superficial kind of sanity. Yet at a community and social scale, it often leads to breakdown. How else can you explain the Holocaust or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the current disaster in Sudan?
Our dear friend Sarah accompanies us to the hospital for number 3. While I can’t see chemotherapy through her eyes, the look on her face, her body language, every way that she reacts to her first experience of an Infusion Center reminds me to SEE. She reminds me that what’s going on should be a little scary. In the early days, chemotherapy was not an out-patient procedure. Patients were hospitalized, isolated in clean rooms, subject to apocalyptic nausea, bone-crushing pain, sores and infections of all kinds. It was as harrowing as bone marrow transplants remain today. The docs have gotten very good at dosing combination chemotherapy drugs, counteracting nausea and other side effects. It makes it easier to forget what’s going on: They’re dripping poison into your veins that will kill cancer cells, but that will also do all kinds of collateral damage, upsetting your gastrointestinal system, your immune system and a dozen other things.
I bring a needlepoint project to the infusion center this time, and an elegant older woman who’s had breast cancer twice, and met her husband here, sits across from me. She says gently, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You could stick your finger with the needle. You could cut yourself. You don’t want to risk that here. You don’t want to risk infection. It’s easy to forget how vulnerable you are when you are doing chemotherapy.”
Indeed. It’s easy to forget. It’s alluring to forget. Forget the very real risks you’re facing. Forget that chemotherapy may cure you, but it may also cause another cancer 10 or 20 years down the line. Forget that there are no guarantees. Forget that after the day 2 steroid reprieve you’re going to feel like hell for a week. Forget that after chemotherapy you still have to face radiation and another surgery. Forget that you’ll be getting Herceptin until the fall of 2011. Forget. Forget. Forget.
Sarah sits next to me with husband Pete, and they’re wonderful. But perhaps the most wonderful thing is that Sarah keeps me from forgetting. The sensations and impressions are new to her, and they make me see again.
We see the Chinese woman near the door. She’s hooked up to a giant bag of some drug and she sits there for hours, eyes closed, just enduring. We see the 40-ish man in the corner who’s closed the curtains around his infusion chair. He holds something, an iPad I think, but he seems to sleep most of the time. He gets up a couple times to use the bathroom, and he’s so, so thin, so pale. He seems to be playing for time. We see the several breast cancer patients who cycle through the chair directly across from mine: The elegant elder woman who comes in for a quick dose, of Herceptin probably. We see the younger woman for whom they close the curtains. She has a port above her clavicle and mastectomy scars. We catch each others’ eyes through a crack in the curtain and she manages to smile. We see the San Quentin prisoner in his private room with his guards. We see the woman in another private room who’s brought her husband, a cooler and another cold cap system, the Penguin Cap, in a bid to save her hair.
We see the nurses. We see them start IVs, respond to alarms, bring warmed blankets, reassure the frightened, comfort the suffering, leap into action when someone has a bad reaction to this drug or that. We see the techs, who bring such intelligence and warmth to mundane tasks. If they sense you’re in the mood, the techs usually have something funny or reassuring to say about your weight and blood pressure or about the weather or about the holiday, or whatever. They bring drinks and blankets quickly and cheerfully. How they keep that up day after day is a mystery to me, but I think it has something to do with resisting those alluring psychological blinders. The nurses and techs continue to interact with patients as people, not as conditions, not as diseases. They must fight each day for sight.
What Sarah helps me to do, and what she writes about in a post for the environmental website Grist, is to again perceive the infusion center as a place of suffering, bravery, and care, but also of compassion, charity and community. Those last things, those things that make the infusion center bearable, would not be possible unless people remained open to both the horrors and the gifts of the place where they drip poison into our veins. The good things would not be possible unless we continue to see, really see, what’s happening to us and what’s happening to others. Thanks, Sarah, for bringing your vision along to number three.