I arrived at work late this morning, having paid a visit to the oncology center for my regular checkup. Since undergoing chemotherapy, the frequency of such visits has gone from once a week to once every other month.
Today was the first day for the temp nurse who drew my blood. She’s filling in for one of the regular nurses while she’s out on maternity leave.
“I used to have great veins before I started coming here,” I warned her.
She spent a minute or two trying to spike the chemo-scarred vein inside my left elbow without striking paydirt. “Try somewhere else?” she asked after noticing my obvious discomfort.
“Please.” She had better luck with the back of my hand.
“That one just kept rolling out of the way,” she said, indicating the fruitless vein near my elbow. “If I were you, I’d tell everyone to just stay away from that one, as it’s basically kaput.”
The subsequent checkup went off without a hitch. Blood counts were good – or good for me, anyway. No signs, no symptoms. My doctor asked if I’d be participating in the Komen Race for the Cure again this year. I’ve walked with his team for the big annual fundraiser, geared specifically toward breast cancer (though I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), every year since I finished treatment.
“Absolutely,” I said. This year will be my third walking with them.
“Great,” he said. “We need your support, not to mention that picture of you jumping through the fire.” He grinned at the mention of the profile picture I use on my fundraising homepage. He likes the picture, and from what he’s said, I gather there are few pix of his “alumni” leaping over bonfires.
On my way out of the office, I stopped by the front desk to schedule an appointment for my quarterly CT scan. I didn’t even recognize my friend Jeff nearby; rather, it was he who noticed me.
“There’s my friend!” he said with a big smile. I turned and smiled, and nearly at once realized who it was.
“Jeff!” I said, and we shook hands. I’d venture to guess Jeff is in his early 40s, and I’m ashamed to admit I don’t recall the exact type of cancer he was facing treatment for. For some reason, lung cancer comes to mind. We first met around the time I was finishing my treatment. We’d pass each other in the waiting area, or in the hospital hallways outside the oncology center. When I’d last seen him, nearly a year earlier, he was lean (though not alarmingly so), and his hair had just started falling out from a new treatment he had started.
But this morning he looked different. His head was topped with the soft, fine, wispy hair of a cancer patient, but his face and body were extraordinarily bloated – likely the product of steroids that comprise part of his treatment. He looked tired, though his expression suggested that seeing me had mustered within him genuine enthusiasm.
But the most notable difference this morning was that Jeff was in a wheelchair.
The receptionist called his name, indicating that it was his turn to head back to see the doctor. A young woman stood up from one of the nearby chairs and walked over to wheel him back. Jeff introduced her as his wife, and we shook hands and exchanged a few more words.
“Stay strong, Jeff,” I said, “and I will see you soon again.”
He smiled as his wife took the handles on his chair. “You…you have kids, don’t you?” he asked.
I nodded. “One,” I said. “He’s three.”
“Oh,” Jeff’s wife said, kindly. “We have a 3-year-old, too.”
I smiled. “They’re a handful.” We all laughed, and with that they disappeared down the long, bright hallway that leads to the nurses’ station – and the infusion room.
I was 31 at the time of my diagnosis, my son, just 13-months-old. When the word “cancer” was first suggested to me, it drove everything else in the world from my mind – everything, except for him. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of that, and I hope he was young enough at the time that he will have no memories of the whole ordeal.
My next CT scan is scheduled for five weeks from now – just before my next oncology checkup. I picked up the appointment form, put on my sunglasses and walked out into the warm morning light.
I was 90 minutes late for work.
And when I got there, I cried.