Healing hands, life-saving poison

January 7, 2010

Life-saving poison.

That’s what chemotherapy is. When it works.

So far, I’ve kept my distance and I hope it stays that way. But last week, I accompanied a friend to her treatment.

In the game of cancer, she’s drawn one of the better hands. If there’s such a thing. Her disease is chronic, but treatable. She’s told she can live with it for a long time. Decades, even.

It’s not the life she’s used to. Cancer is a whole different world. There’s pain and fatigue. Blood tests, doctors’ appointments and injections. There are scans and infusions.

But it’s life. Which beats the alternative.

It’s jarring to be so neurotic about my own health and sit in on a doctor’s appointment when the subject is cancer. But the oncologist seemed very on top of things and encouraging. As she asked questions and examined my friend, I wondered what it was like to treat this disease, day in and day out. How she mustered the strength to face the bad news she sometimes had to deliver.

Then, we went to the treatment.

There are some plush chemo infusion centers, such as one at Stanford Hospital, but this one was pretty bare bones, chosen only for its convenient location near my friend’s home . A bunch of recliners on wheels. IVs and hanging bags. No TV. And worse: no privacy screens. Which bothered me most.

They’d tried to make the room festive, with holiday greens and a few decorations. But it was still a pretty dismal place. I was glad my friend had a very short “push” treatment. I think it would be very hard for her to sit in that environment for hours.

I tried not to stare at the patients receiving treatment, but it was hard not to because everything was so open.

It looked like they ranged in age from 20s on up to elderly. Some had brought magazines, a book, a cooler with snacks, an Ipod or lunch. Most were very subdued. My heart just broke for them.

Some were so pale, a stark contrast to how healthy my friend looks. One man’s skin had a distinctly green cast. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

I wondered what they were thinking. How the chemicals felt as they entered their bodies. I tried to put myself in their place but had to stop. It was too upsetting. I am, you remember, neurotic.

I don’t ever want to be in their shoes. I’m grateful we have no history of cancer in my family but I know it could crop up anyway. We don’t know what environmental factors we might have been exposed to.

When I did volunteer work with people with HIV, even terminal cases, it wasn’t as viscerally upsetting as this was. Probably because I knew that I wasn’t really at risk for that disease.

But cancer is different. It can strike anyone. At any time.

I’ve wanted to write about this visit for days but the words just aren’t coming. Like any cultural Catholic, I keep thinking about the Blessed Mother and wanting to offer a Roman Catholic prayer for the sick.

To all who are sick and suffering, and especially for my loved ones:

Dear Jesus, Divine Physician and Healer of the sick,
we turn to you in this time of illness.
O dearest comforter of the troubled, alleviate our worry and sorrow with your gentle love, and grant us the grace and strength to accept this burden.
Dear God, we place our worries in your hands.
We place our sick under your care and humbly ask that you restore your servant to health again.
Above all, grant us the grace to acknowledge your will and know that whatever you do, you do for the love of us.

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