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Excerpt from Today Cancer, Tomorrow The World: book out on April 11

February 27, 2013




I had a guy snap this picture of me on my first day of Infusion. It’s unlike freshman orientation, no beenie.


There are thirteen days left for christmas shopping, but no holiday decorations adorn the Stanford Hospital’s Cancer Center’s door There’s no mistletoe either. I balefully stared at the stark sign:

Infusion Treatment Area
Oncology Hematology

Nice wording! I guess they don’t want to discourage walk-in traffic with:

Chemo Area
Cancer & Blood Filtering
Leukemia Bone Marrow Transplant

That’s not exactly warm and fuzzy. No matter how you spell it or say it, the signage will never have as much curb appeal as:

Cocktails Dancing Nightly

“Oncology” instead of cancer. “Infusion” instead of chemotherapy. “Hematology” instead of blood. “bmt Apheresis” instead of Bone Marrow Transplant. The phrasing might be medically euphemized, hot waxed and sanitized but it didn’t change my circumstance. I felt chastened for an offense I didn’t commit. I’ve been taken into custody. Deported into the subdued world of displaced humility. Cancer doesn’t plea bargain. In a few weeks, if I want to remain alive, I must go through these doors. I uttered the first of many groans blended into a moan and a gasp, a different note of “mmm.” It’s the sound when something takes a bite out of your life. I’d expel it many times over the next several months.

“This is a fuckin’ miserable day,” I mutter, hang my head and place my hand on the warm door handle.

I enter the Infusion waiting area. Its décor is pretty upscale on the stress-free side. A lot of dangerous dark wood. A reception desk gives the impression you’re checking into a four-star hotel. Yeah, the Hilton with chemo. A flat screen on the wall flashes images of harmonious nature — beautiful landscapes, dolphins. Artificial plants are by windows that view the outside hallways. Soothing pan-flute music plays on the speakers. You’d almost believe it was a lounge for a spa or a crematorium. It’s a combination of both. People put their life on mute and have to be here or die. The room’s ambience is subdued and unsettling. It feels hermetically sealed from the interior, not the exterior. Everyone looks depleted in this pressurized cabin. Vacuum packed by nothingness. Slam dunked by circumstance and shanghaied. They are waiting to be called for their chemo-party-of-one seating reservation. Soon I’ll be sitting among them for a scheduled departure and arrival that ends up in the same destination. The room’s atmosphere seemed like it hunkered everyone down in the chill of a low-lying fog. It’s easy to tell the glumpy Chemosabis apart from caregiving family members or friends. Yeah, Chemosabis,I got the term from ‘Kemo Sabe,’ a nickname Tonto the Indian, gave The Lone Ranger. The Chemosabis wore knit caps pulled down on their foreheads, showed no expressions. They are staring to a place within their lives that’s beyond this room. A few are bone marrow or leukemia patients with weakened immune systems who must wear cloth face masks with vents on them, which gives the impression they’re downed pilots — in a way, they were. Most were sullenly slumped in their chairs, worn-down by treatments. They are dull-eyed, disheveled and look like they tumbled out fully dressed from a dryer in rumpled and frayed baggy shirts, and shabby sweatpants popping with lint pilling. The caregiving civilians on the healthy side of life were traveling tourist class: absorbed in laptops, reading newspapers or magazines, checking cell phones for messages, doing crossword puzzles, yawning or drinking coffee. No one was speaking.

I walked up to one of the mahogany-framed walled booths. A smiling woman sitting behind a black-marble counter. She could have been a courteous bank teller. I looked down at the floor, then at her and said, “I’m scheduled for chemotherapy in a couple weeks, and I wanted to be given a tour, if I could.”

“I’ll see if a nurse is free to give you one,” gently replied the woman.

A few minutes later, an oncology nurse introduced herself. I trailed after her. She opened a nearby door to the treatment areas. We walked through three co-ed communal infusion rooms. Large windows overlook trees but the views are obstructed by construction equipment making improvements to the hospital. Each room had about eight stations with reclining chairs and small flat-screen tvs on swivel arms. Every station occupied by a patient radiated a respectful and softened edged circle of seared isolation, like each person was a lone survivor in a chair thrown free from an airline crash site. I didn’t want to disturb anyone. I somberly walked outside the Chemosabis’ perimeters, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, fearing they might glance at me with distrustful or angry eyes. I didn’t want them to think I was sightseeing. I saw a wide age-range of weary, powerless and resigned people connected to tubes from clear chemo sacks hung on poles as clicking and humming computerized monitors slowly pumped a continuous infusion into their veins. The process looked like their bodies were being drained not filled. I noticed a man in his late sixties, gray hair, crumpled in a recliner, his eyes slits, mouth turned down. Like he was dissolving. His distressed wife beside him, a grave, taut-strained tension of suffering deeply carved on her face, and a copy of Forbes magazine in her lap. In another recliner, a drowsy middle-aged Mexican woman had a knit cap on her head, its woolen topped knob looked like the nipple of a baby’s bottle. Her lower arms streaked with purple bruises from needles. Others drearily stared at nothing as nurses held bags of chemo and read the patient’s bracelet and stated their name and birth date while another nurse entered the data on a computer. One nurse said, “I’m switching out the Mannitol.” I heard another say she had to “hang some chemo.” I was surprised other Chemosabis looked fine. I thought everybody would be whacked out. Quite a few patients were hooked up to chemo like they were being refueled. They were reading books, watching tv, listening to iPods on headsets, using laptops or iPads, chatting to visitors or playing games on their cell phones. I followed my infusion docent down a hallway past a private rooms with beds. I spot a middle-aged woman. She wasn’t sleeping. She was conked out. A brown wig askew on her bald head. A resolve began to wind, knot, and harden in me. I thought, no matter how tired and beaten chemo makes me, I’ll never lay down for cancer — never. The Big C won’t catch me sleeping at my post.

“Well that’s it,” said the nurse after our three-minute tour, smiling.

Back in the waiting room I passed quietly slouched, wrung-out Chemosabis. They were distant but immersed in their surroundings. Dark planets orbiting the Sun of Hope. Ironed-out dismayed refugees in an alien country. We were more like self-exiled pilgrims in an uncertain frontier. I’d soon be one of them. My reality has taken off on another flight. I was booking passage to Another World.

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