Lessons from the Chemo Room

My husband hated the chemo room from the moment we entered the oddly shaped space at the back of my oncologist’s office. Seven recliners were set around the room, accompanied by chairs for guests and side tables for drinks and magazines. A nice enough setup, right? So what was the problem?

You’d think it might be the poison or the cancer that scared my husband off. Not so. It was the atmosphere of the place that kept him wishing he were somewhere else. Where was the Zen fountain, the dim lighting? he wondered. What would be wrong with a little piped-in music, or hushed silence even, to bring on a meditative mood?

For my part, I suppose my expectations were much in line with my husband’s. For that first appointment, I had packed a bag filled with things I thought I’d need during the nearly three hours I’d be receiving my IV cocktail. I had a few bottles of water, a granola bar, hard candy, multiple magazines, a book, and my PDA so that I could answer e-mail. I was prepared for a long, quiet, sullen time.

The truth is, during the six months I went to chemotherapy I never read a single magazine. I never cracked a book. There was much too much going on in the chemo room.

The chemo room at my oncologist’s office wasn’t a quiet place, and it certainly wasn’t sullen. It was a chatty place, full of laughter and noise. This was a space where people came together and shared their stories. We talked about our kids and provided one another with makeup tips and wig-shopping advice. It was full of mothers and sisters and friends, grandmothers, spouses, and singles. It was loud and boisterous, full of life—and the complete antithesis of what we had expected.

In the end, for me, chemotherapy was about more than the drugs, the recliner, and the experience of sitting there receiving my treatment. It was about the people I met and the lessons I learned. Here are just a few.

There Are Many Definitions of Survivor

Hannah was the elder stateswoman in the chemo room. During an impromptu conversation about hair regrowth one day, she informed us in her heavy eastern European accent that her hair “grew back curly the first time, straight the second, and”—running a hand over her thick hair—“gray the third!”

Three times this woman had sat through chemo. I crossed my fingers that I would be there only once. As the conversation continued, Hannah informed those of us listening that in addition to being in the chemo room three times, she was a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia. She had endured Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Bergen-Belsen. Hannah’s positive attitude in the face of, well. . . , her whole life served as an inspiration every time I went to chemotherapy. In my heart I still want to be in the chemo room only once, but as I look forward to someday reaching the five-year cancer-free mark I remind myself that there are many definitions of survivor.

There Might Be an Angel in the Next Recliner

My second time at chemo, my port wasn’t working. I’d had the small disc installed near my collarbone so the nurses could plug in my IV without potentially causing damage to the veins in my arms. And now it wasn’t working. I raised my hands. I touched my toes. I looked left. I shimmied my shoulders. I did everything the nurses could think of, but still the medicine wasn’t flowing.

A tall, blond woman named Melissa was sitting in the lounger across from me. When I’d first walked in that day, we’d shared pictures of our kids. Hers were preschool-aged girls, blond and angelic. Mine are slightly older, elementary aged, two boys and a girl. We had bonded over photos and parenting stories. When she saw that my drip wasn’t flowing, Melissa rolled her own IV pole over near mine. She dropped to the floor and, without asking, rolled up my pant leg. She began to rub her thumb along my shin, stroking a crevasse between the muscle and the bone. I looked up. The IV was flowing!

She’d drop her hand, and it would stop. Melissa taught my friend how to rub my leg before returning to her own recliner. When asked how she knew this mysterious way to make my port flow, she told me that she had Stage IV cancer. She had been given only months to live and had outlived everyone’s expectations. During the time she’d been in chemo, she’d learned a few tricks. I was grateful. Just before Melissa left the room, I asked her what she’d done for a living before she was diagnosed. She said she was a harpist. Her daughters may have looked angelic, I realized, but Melissa was the real deal.

Be Aware That Not All the People You Meet Will Be Positive

Inspiration comes in many forms in the chemo room if you simply take the time to talk to people. But there are also people who exude negative energy, and before you talk to that person sitting next to you, it is impossible to know on which side he or she will fall. It is up to you to decide if meeting people in the chemo room is worth the risk. If not, headphones and a DVD player can be a girl’s best friend.

One day I met a woman who claimed that her cancer was exactly like mine: Stage I, node-negative, same identifying markers, same chemo. Just like me, I thought. Then her story became one of recurrence, higher staging, and a negative prognosis. This wasn’t her first time in the chemo room, it turned out—it was her third. She’d been to Mexico for alternative treatment and had gotten an infection. It was too much for me. I quickly excused myself and went to the bathroom, but the damage was done. Weeks later I still thought of her story. And I was scared that her story would become mine.

I know now that it wasn’t mine—that it isn’t—but sometimes a story like that gets stuck in your head and you can’t get rid of it. That was not the first or only time I wished I’d brought a movie to watch. But it’s the chance you take if you decide to risk talking to people in the chemo room. For me the risk was worthwhile because I met Melissa and Hannah and many other incredible people whose stories propelled me upward and forward. And as the months moved on, I found that I actually looked forward to chemo days.

Chemo Can Provide Its Own Comedy

There are times in life that my husband calls “Stacia moments.” I tend to be a bit forgetful—even before chemo—and very clumsy. My first day in chemo, as I rushed to the bathroom, I forgot to ask the nurse to lower my IV pole. I managed to ram the doorframe, knocking a clock off the wall and breaking it. (I still wonder if my HMO will pay for that one!)

During my second chemo visit, I stood up too fast and nearly fell off my very cute new platform sandals. The lesson here involves wearing flat shoes. If you don’t believe me, go ahead—wear high heels to chemo. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

On a recent visit, the nurse taped a syringe to my IV pole (containing medication to raise my blood counts after the chemo) so that it would be at room temperature by the time I received it. This was not the first time she’d taped the shot to the pole, but this time another bathroom trip sealed my fate. On my way back, I grabbed the pole right where the shot was (don’t ask how I managed that one). I knocked the lid off and stabbed myself with the needle. It didn’t really hurt, or even bleed, but it quickly became the “Stacia moment” my family loves to retell.

Chemo sucks. But it can also be the place where you’ll meet people with invaluable wisdom to share, where you’ll laugh a little, where you’ll learn a lot, and where—if you’re lucky—you’ll find the inspiration you need to focus on kicking your cancer out and letting life in.

I am glad the chemo room wasn’t a meditative place with a nice fountain and soft elevator music. There is too much I would have missed if I had closed my eyes and drifted away.

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