Tuesday, May 03, 2005


El Cancer


“I feel like a fucking Golden Girl,” I say to my friend Sheryl, at whose house I am staying. We haven’t seen each other in twelve years, a streak I decided to break when I found that she’d had more cancer, including metastasis to the liver. In the last three years, three of my friends have emerged with life-threatening illnesses. I can’t assume that we’ll all always be around anymore.

Sheryl’s house looks right out on the water where, she tells me, the dolphins swim by from time to time. I haven’t seen them yet, but I did see a Miami PD cop-boat go by. What I thought was a harbor seal turned out to be a coconut that fell off one of the palms that line the bay. . idyllic scenes that belie the struggles of my friend and others like her.

Today I accompany my pal to her chemo appointment where I glimpse a sliver of that world. . The waiting room holds an assortment of men and women who await their turn for the infusion of chemicals that will keep cancerous cells from lodging in other organs. I leaf through the brochures: one is in Spanish from Gilda’s Club, which features a cartoon of the late-great in her Roseanne Roseannadanna wig. “Somos una comunidad de apoyo, sin fines lucrativos, de afiliacion gratuita, para quienes han sido tocados por el cancer.”

El cancer.

Later I will read on Breastcancer.org , “Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy; this means it affects the whole body by going through the bloodstream. The purpose of chemotherapy and other systemic treatments is to get rid of any cancer cells that may have spread from where the cancer started to another part of the body.” For now I will simply watch and learn.

Inside, the chairs resemble the ones you see in the beauty parlor. They would tilt back if there were room in the cramped spaces; underneath is a little shelf for the support of the feet of the supine. In the time that it takes to get a perm, patients can have all their cells, cancerous and otherwise assaulted by chemicals designed to keep the neighborhood clean. Like a permanent gone wrong, some of the patients will lose their hair. Several patients are perusing the Just in Time brochures that feature attractive scarves and hats for woman who have lost their hair. TLC features cute newsboy caps, turbans, and wigs as well as featherweight breast forms for “coping with radiation.”

“You’ll probably have to stand,” a nurse warns me as we head for the actual therapy parlors. “We’re pretty full up today.” Indeed, sitting in a corner is a woman draped in towels to protect her from the air conditioning that chills the room, as well, perhaps, as from the glances of strangers. She seems not to want to be seen. When I glance at her she pulls a towel over her face so that only her deep-set eyes are showing. A wizened little man sits next to her, complimenting a young nurse on her beautiful hair. “What do you do to it?” he asks, probably rhetorically. A middle-age man in an aloha shirt has just finished his treatment, and his wife, whose shirt nearly matches his, listens solemnly as the nurse answers their questions, as if sheer attention could take the fear away.

By now Sheryl is an old pro at the ritual of chemotherapy. She’s donned a camp shirt so that her tanned chest is available for easy insertion of the needle that will connect her to her various drips. She chats up the nurses, who are glad to see her, tells them about her trip to Mexico. A little blue bracelet encircles her bronzed ankle. She’s the picture of seacoast health. She relaxes as her blood samples are drawn for the preliminary tests. After a few moments we move to a more private room so that I can sit down, since everywhere I stand turns out to be in somebody’s way. It’s a while before anyone joins us. “That’s the trouble with these little rooms, Sheryl remarks. “You can’t be sure that they’ll remember that you’re here.”

We haven’t been there very long when we are joined by a thin woman with a canny smile who walks gingerly as she wheels her oxygen tank to a chair in the corner. There is some commotion about her missing medical records from the hospital and calls are made to get the necessary numbers. Behind her, her son Herb, a young Dustin Hoffman with a cell phone clipped to his belt, stands a little uncertainly outside the door while we all negotiate who will sit where. “I’ll stand guard out here,” he declares. He takes a call from someone named Mohammad who turns out to be in Paraguay. “I’ll call the bank,” Herb tells him, and joins us in the now-divided territory.

“Food. I feel like food,” Mama nudges Herb, who goes out to find her some coffee and crackers. “I’’m hungry, and my name isn’t Polly,” she scolds him. “What I’d like right now is a big juicy steak, a baked potato…” She drifts off, and we are glad for her, since she’s told us that she hasn’t slept in four days. Perhaps her meds will help her to relax. I skim a brochure from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation entitled “A Buddie For You,” while Sheryl becomes a Buddie to Mama, who’s still wide awake and clearly curious, a little scared about what will come next.

“Yes, my hair fell out,” Sheryl tells her. Her trademark glorious curls have since grown in, and she tells Mama about the scarves she wore, the salespeople who taught her how to tie them in attractive and creative ways. The Florida heat was too much for wigs, she says, but some women really feel the need for styles that look like the ones they have lost.

Ever the Buddie, Sheryl tells her about the support group she will attend later today, and which she attends faithfully. “Support group? Whaddya wanna go to one of those for?” She’s of the generation who thinks that the best way to keep family from Worry is to say little to nothing at all. Sheryl tells her about all the handy tips she’s picked up at group, the opportunities she’s had to pass on experiences of her own to people who are at the beginning of the process. Sheryl tells her to find a well-facilitated group that doesn’t let any one person dominate the conversation, that groups really make a difference.

"The survival rates are so much higher for people who go to support groups,” she tells me as we leave.

May my buddy’s experience confirm the research! May Mama learn to talk!

Petal, I love you.

What a wonderful and loved friend you are to these women.

Thank you for visiting my blog, and telling me about yours.
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