Christmas at the Cancer Ward and Why A Little Perspective Goes a Long Way

It has been a tough week. I banged up my car, missed two days of work, screwed up my back, and had to drop five hundred smackaroos (that I don’t have to spare) for damages during the worst time of year for over-expenditures.

One of the dogs peed on my favorite flannel shirt and I spilled nail polish on my carpet. I can’t go to New York for the long weekend at the end of December that I’d hoped for, and my personal statement on my grad school apps is missing one pertinent paragraph I can’t quite figure out yet.

But there is joy in my life, and it outweighs the shit. And I’m lucky for that. I have to stop complaining about my doldrums as often as I do. Because, duh, in contrast to the world I live in, I don’t got it so bad.

For the last three years I’ve worked at a Mental Health Clinic as a Caseworker. I am used to active psychosis and delusional thinking, drug withdrawal, sexual impulsivity, and a whole spectrum of behavior that some people might find off-putting. But I am comfortable here, and I am at a point where nothing shocks me.

Cancer on the other hand, is not part of my professional repertoire. Its effects have made a severe impact on my personal life and in the last few weeks, it has shimmied itself into my professional life.

My job is not one that you leave in the office to begin with, so when I found out that my client, who I will call May (for anonymity’s sake) was diagnosed with an advanced form of breast cancer, it was hard to digest. May is a recovering alcoholic and drug user, nine months sober, mother of three boys, Schizoaffective sufferer of PTSD who lives by herself in a small apartment and has little to no contact with her family. She has two friends, who live next door, and other than these interactions, she keeps to herself. I generally see her twice a week to take her to therapy, package her weekly meds, and to catch up. Sometimes we take a walk, other times we get a coffee, occasionally we go thrifting. She has made mistakes, she has been through Hell, and through her pursuits towards self-improvement, one conversation with her would leave you under the impression that May has paid her dues.

But in November, her surgeon told her that the cancer had spread to three of her lymph nodes. That they’d have to remove her breast in March, and until then, she’d be undergoing a vigorous treatment of chemotherapy. The news was broken over a fake mahogany table littered with paper flowers. The oncologist came in to talk to us. He looked at me the whole time. Gave me the pamphlets. No one held May’s hand. Her son didn’t answer his phone. I took her for a slice of pizza after she found out her diagnosis. “Are you okay?” I asked her. “Just numb,” she replied. When I dropped her off that night, I shed the tears for May that no one else bothered to.  Not even May.

Yesterday was May’s first treatment of Chemo. We’ve been preparing for this for about two weeks now, but when I call her an hour before I pick her up, her voice is slight and trembly. “I’m feeling a little panicky,” she says. When I get to her apartment, her two neighbors are flanking May on each side. She assures them she’ll be fine, back in a few hours. When she gets in the car (the hoop-dee that I’m borrowing from a co-worker), May is talking a mile a minute, as she does when she is anxious. I grasp the majority of it: “Italkedtomyson,heissoworried,Iwantaredwig,Ican’teveneatrightnow,doyouthinkI’llthrowup?” I just let her talk. It’s only a ten minute drive.

We get to the Oncology Unit of the hospital and the halls suddenly become a brighter color yellow and the art on the walls full of pictures of smiling children on bicycles. The cheer splattered everywhere is an uncomfortable sort of ironic when blended with the unmistakable smell of sick in the air. May walks three or four paces behind me. When we get into the Infusion Room where they administer the Chemo, we are greeted by Lisa, our personally-appointed nurse, complete with glittering snowman scrubs. She sets us up in a curtain drawn hub of space where May is lead towards an over-sized, hospital-issued massage chair and a small TV on an extendable arm that she could adjust further or closer to her face. She puts on an episode of  a day-time panel show called “The Talk” (starring Darlene from Roseanne, omg) and Lisa comes to check May’s vitals and prepare her for what’s to come.

“You’re going to lose your hair. You’re going to be nauseous on and off during your treatments. We’re doing to inject you with three different anti-nausea meds. One will make you sleepy. One will make you jittery. The other will make you short of breath and thirsty. This Chemo med will give you mouth sores, this one makes you pee red, they both kill all of your good cells and for that we’ll give you a separate shot.”

I have seen this song and dance before as a little kid, when my Mom was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. But when you’re eight, and you have to go along with your Mom to her Chemo treatments, they set you up in a little room with crayons and legos and you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t see the emaciated man next to you throw his saline drip across the room and say “Why are you giving me these fucking meds if I’m just gonna die anyway?”

They bring over a tray of cookies and juice (“At least chew on the ice chips if you don’t have an appetite, hon. They’ll help with the mouth sores.”) and come back every forty minutes or so to check on the infusion. There’s a little timer counting down the milliliters being processed through a port-tube, surgically implanted into May’s chest just for this procedure. After the first couple of hours, May falls asleep while I restlessly shift in my chair, pace the room, go to the bathroom, knit my scarf and read the same few pages of my book. I realize that it is almost a blessing for May to be on such a high dosage of psychotropic meds for this. She really does mean it when she says that she’s numb. Every time I walk the length of the room I try desperately not to stare at the dozen or so other people here for the same treatment. Most of them have someone with them; a spouse or a relative. The nurses think I’m May’s sister, but I have to tell them the truth for bureaucratic reasons: “No, I am her mental health caseworker. Here is my badge.”  

Finally, after six hours, May’s first Chemo treatment is over. She gets up  groggily and says, “Well I guess that wasn’t so bad.” The nurse hands us a few prescriptions and her treatment schedule. I give it a glimpse and my heart sinks to see that May and I will be back here on Christmas Eve. “Sucks don’t it?” Lisa says, “It’s one of our busiest days. But don’t worry, they play Christmas tunes on the Satellite radio and Dr. Barnes brings in sparkling apple cider and everyone gets their own champagne glass. We do a real nice toast.” I can’t help but wonder how many people want to throw their glasses to the floor that day and tell Dr. Barnes to go fuck himself. I would.

I drop May off and promise to drop in tomorrow to see how she’s doing. She’s exhausted and just wants to go to bed, she tells me. She is beyond grateful that I stayed with her the whole time. I tell her not to mention it. I wouldn’t have wanted to be alone. From her apartment I drive fifteen minutes up the road to the small country club that is hosting our office holiday party today. Funnily enough I don’t feel like celebrating, but I swore to my clients I would be there, even though I’m already two hours late and have missed dinner.

Everyone is wearing their Christmas greens and reds, ugly reindeer sweaters maxing out the dance floor. There are pieces of gingerbread house all over the ground as I make my way to the emptiest table, grabbing a can of diet cola on my way. I chug it down and try not to interact with anyone, but when one of my especially boisterous clients spots me, I eventually let her drag me out to the middle of the room to “dougie”. She is wearing bright purple eye shadow and five layers of red glitter on her eyelids. I can’t help but laugh.

I let the day melt away from me, internally repeat the reminder that I myself am not sick. That this is my job; only an extension of my life. Not life itself.

This Christmas, I will be reminded of how much I have. I will sit in the Infusion Room of the Oncology Unit wishing I was somewhere else. I will hold May’s hand and keep her company, wondering what it feels like to be her. Wondering if she’s angry at the God she keeps praying to. I will toast to her good health. I will be thankful for mine.

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About Lauren Singer

Until my life turns into the Beyonce single that it’s meant to become, I’ll be over here, cuddling my pup and supplementing my delusions with bottom shelf-whiskey, RnB dance parties, and a lot of Netflix movies ‘featuring a strong female lead’.
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