Does Cancer Have An Upside?

I started the morning of my husband's cancer treatment reading about race issues. I read about the women who hate feminists, and the men who hate women. I watched videos about church-goers picketing gay marriage and young people writing off church because it's too political.

There is a lot of division in our world. I realize that's stating the obvious, but I think I might have found the great equalizer. I made this discovery while sitting with my husband during his chemo treatments. That's right -- cancer might just have a societal upside.

When you sit in a room with people of all ages hooked up to IV's that are releasing chemo into their systems, the social/racial/gender barriers dissolve.

During treatment, a young man will enter into conversation with a chaplain in his seventies. A conservative will take a snack from a liberal. A burly man in flannel will grab the hand of a gay man for encouragement.

One afternoon, an African-American pilot, there to take care of his wife, gave my husband a thumbs up as he left the room. We didn't know each other, but it didn't matter. We understood each other.

I don't think in our many hours spent in the cancer center I heard one political statement. There has yet to be an angry rant, other than the one I provided when a woman would NOT stop asking questions.

The questions were things like, "My feet are cold. Why do you think my feet are cold? Are there snacks around here? Can I have my fifth pillow? Could you bring me a different kind of ginger ale? Can you place that pillow under my left foot so it slightly supports my baby toe?"

I know, it's terrible, but her questions made my husband one hour late for treatment which meant he would be a little more nauseated. Ironically, this is a woman who will beat her cancer by irritating it right out of her body.

After she asked the nurse, "Can you please give me an IV machine that doesn't beep? I don't like the sound. It wakes me up," I said in a Roseanne Barr-like volume,"Oh My God -- there are other people in here who need treatment. Come on!"

In general, however, the cancer center offers an incredible sense of focus and companionship. This is a land where judgement dissipates. Women with scarves on their heads make eye contact and nod in an "I know what you're going through and I'm glad I'm not the only bald woman here" kind of way.

Men in their forties use canes, and young people are pulling their doctor's information out of school backpacks. It is a place where there is singular focus and an overwhelming acceptance of each other.

While watching my husband deal with cancer, I have learned a few things:

  • Don't worry about tomorrow. Focus on today and stay positive, because your body needs every photon of light you can muster up. This means staying away from the news and grouchy people. If you are the grouchy person, then try to ignore yourself.
  • Physical appearance is shallow and meaningless. Leave that world to the Kardashians -- they focus obsessively on looks so that the rest of us don't have to.
  • If today is a good day, then celebrate it. Laugh a little louder. Don't worry about your pants being too loose or too tight. Don't worry about the clutter in the house. Stand in the clutter and dance a jig, because today is a good day.
  • People aren't nearly as bad as the news makes us out to be. We like to believe that someone who doesn't subscribe to our politics is trying to destroy the world. Most people love their families and their pets and their gardens just like we do. Don't let negative stories create unnecessary enemies.

In the cancer center there is courage beneath the pale faces and shaking hands.

I recall one woman who sat beside me in the waiting room. I introduced myself, and she told me that she had liver cancer. She'd had it for three years, and had just been told that her medication was no longer working.

"What are they going to do?" I asked.

"They're putting me on new chemo today," she said, "and I just hope it won't make me sick. But it's all good. God's got me."

The nurse called her name to go back for treatment, and she stood up and danced her way to the door. The nurse threw back her head and laughed, and they embraced.

I remember when I was 9-years-old, sitting in a hospital ward. I had an illness that couldn't be diagnosed, and my parents had to go home to be with my brother and sister. I lay in my ward with twelve other children, wondering what tests they would run next.

During that time, I realized that it didn't matter who had the nicest stuff or went to the best school or sold the most Girl Scout cookies. Georgianna had kidneys that were failing, Carol had cancer, and Belinda couldn't walk. We bonded in a way that has never been replicated for me. It was the purity of childhood and the gift that illness provides.

We all had one goal. Like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, we searched for a way to find our way home. But until we found it, we held onto each other with an intimate ferocity. We talked, and laughed, and never paid attention to each others' nationality or background.

In the cancer center, there is no talk of division. Instead, every patient searches the face of another looking for hope. And when a smile is shared, for a moment, the hope is found.

Because in that smile is the balm for every fear, and the answer to every question ever asked.

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