The hard part…

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.

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About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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3 Responses to The hard part…

  1. Franklin Stone says:

    Heather,
    Your writing is so beautiful! It touches me on so many levels, many “not-cancer”. Thank you for sharing so much of it with us.
    Please tell Pete that Jan 5th is the Grace Church Fair. We hope he has time to drop by.
    Franklin

  2. Wonderful, just wonderful.

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