Hey, the simple truth of the matter is that people die of cancer. When you're in the survivor battle it can be hard to verbalize this. We tend to have this "let's not talk about the bad stuff, because talking about it makes it real, gives it power, scares us, etc." So we frequently focus on the positives, give all our cancer survivors hugs and positive encouragement, chant the mantra that we can create our own reality and sweep the scary stuff under the rug. But today I got the privilege of talking with a couple of folks that are staring their mortality straight in the face, and doing it with a calm grace that was truly inspiring to watch.
The first person is an elderly woman, in the infusion center to get platelets. Normal platelet count is 150-400 and you can walk around with a platelet count of 80 and in general be ok. Her platelet count was six. At 15 they give you a platelet transfusion. So she is basically a train wreck waiting to happen. Brain bleeds, internal organ leakage - nasty stuff. You really need platelets to do what you'd like to do - like walk around without having your organs bleed internally. So you'd expect this woman to be super stressed, or terrified or something. But no. She just walks in (carefully, because if you bruise yourself when your platelet count is six, you are some kind of fucked.) Sits in the chair, gets hooked up, calm as can be and sucks up the life giving platelets. And oh yeah, she has an incurable blood disease and will be dead in six months. And her daughter is with her, bemoaning how the universe can allow someone to hit and run her car while she's transporting her dying mother to the infusion center. But through all of this, these people are as nice as can be - loving to each other, finding ways to laugh at all the little things in life that you have to deal with to live in the modern world. All the time looking down the barrel of the mother's imminent demise. It's just so amazing to see people cope with this kind of mortal threat with dignity, grace and loving approach. When you talk to them, your efforts to help seem so puny and useless given everything they're going through. But as a social worker told me, we give them a gift when we stand witness to their journey. So my pillow plumping and warm blanket wrapping may not have been much, but I was there (after a 2 hour commute in the snow) and it really felt like an honor.
The next guy is an old Russian. And he just looks like a zombie. I mean, really. He's old, yellow skin, skinny to the point of looking like someone from a concentration camp. He got three bags of red blood cells the day before. At the nadir of my treatment, I got two bags one day and it made me look and feel great. But he had three bags and still looked horrible. So you can imagine what he looked and felt like before he got his transfusion. And here is the dialog he has with the nurse:
"How are you feeling today?"
"Good!" (which is hard to believe, given his obviously whacked out blood chemistry and extremely low weight). "I was a bit tired, but better today. " Translation - if you need three pints of red blood cells, feeling a bit tired is a code word for being flat on your back, unable to move due to a complete lack of oxygen delivery capacity.
"How are the sores in your mouth?"
"Still there a bit, but getting better every day."
The nurse asks him several more questions and although he's not evasive, it's pretty clear that he's just not going to admit to anything really bothering him. And he does it all with a calm, dignified demeanor. Although I don't know the details of his prognosis, he's in WAY worse shape then when I saw him a month ago. If it was Vegas, I would bet heavily that he'll be dead in a month or two.
It's kind of a freaky thing to be in the presence of dying people. Somehow you think they should be wailing or shouting or paralyzed by their fear of dying. But in general, they just kind of look and act like you or me. Granted, they usually look pretty messed up but I've been amazed and impressed that these people manage to keep it together. Of course, they may be doing a lot of screaming and moaning and wailing in private but when I see them in the infusion center, their behavior is really a testament to the strength of the human character. They may not look like much to the casual observer, but I've gotten to know them enough to see the hero and heroine inside. It's an honor to get them a pillow and a blanket and maybe share a story or two.
That's the report from the infusion center. Just wanted to share the powerful things that go on in such a place while the rest of us stress out about whether our favorite football team wins on Sunday or what kind of dressing we'll prepare for our Thanksgiving dinner. Intense stuff, for sure. But rewarding to be able to witness.