It’s the day before the day before New Year’s. The Infusion Center is largely empty, not the usual “Sale on Cancer!” kind of crowd, with every chair filled. Of six recliners in my infusion bay, only three are occupied. There’s a guy in the corner across from me, prostate cancer. He’s obviously doesn’t want to be there. He reads a magazine as the nurse asks him the usual pre-infusion questions: any pain? birthdate? If I barely acknowledge you, can this all be a dream?
In the other corner, a woman just a bit older sits calmly as the nurse hooks her chemo line up to a port near her left collar bone. We don’t talk for a long while, but then I mention how much I like the multi-colored turban she’s wrapped around her head.
“Losing my hair is almost the hardest part,” she says. “The first time, I really hated it. This time, my boys helped me shave it off.”
She has ovarian cancer. She beat it back once, but now it’s back. We don’t talk about where it might have metastasized or what her prognosis might be. That seems too close, too scary.
So, instead, she tells me about the “t-shirt trick” cutting off the bottom of a large t-shirt and tying it just so. Hopefully you won’t need it but it’s soft and warm, she says. Her son, 19, sits next to her and nods knowingly. He’s handsome and charming and so gentle with his mom. Two other boys, 21 and 23 are in college. One of the older ones is coming to pick them up.
We talk about the symptom cluster study with all the booklets to fill out. She’s doing that one, too. I say that I find some of the questions a little disturbing, “Do you feel that your life has been a failure?” “Are you afraid?”
It’s different depending on what stage you’re in, the woman says.
I don’t ask what stage she’s in, and she doesn’t offer the information. She does say that her next infusion will depend on the pathology results that come back after this one. I conclude she’s a few stages ahead of me.
After an hour or so, the nurse unhooks the IV from the woman’s port. She and her son start to gather their things, getting ready to go.
“Good luck,” I say, as they begin to walk out. “Keep up the fight.”
“That’s the hard part,” she says gently. “The hard part is not giving up.”
But she has her sons.