This is the final instalment of the four-part series, Adventures in Lymphomaland. Share your cancer story here.
Life often breaks down into teams without you realizing it. The gay team, the Jewish team, the parent team. Some teams you choose, some you don’t. But these are your people. I never thought about the cancer team until I suddenly found myself recruited. No choice in the matter.
When the nurse hands me a So You Have Cancer package on my exploratory visit to the Odette Cancer Centre at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, I don’t even want to touch it. She tells me to register for a “my chart” password so that I can get all my test results online.
I don’t play for cancer. Why would I want to know my stats?
Maybe the hundreds of others sitting waiting for updates and treatment, at whom I smile sympathetically but too quickly, as I would at a street person, belong here.
Not me. I’m a free agent. I’m on a solo, in-out mission.
But since my first visit, I’ve learned that cancer, unlike most illnesses, is a team sport – albeit one with no rules, no requisite skills, no age or gender restrictions.
“Who’s in the waiting room?” my brother asks me early on.
“Everyone’s there,” I say. Newly drafted rookies, veterans, sprinters and marathoners all participate in the cancer Olympics. Together, we do the circuit – wait, blood work, results, wait, chemo, invasive tests, wait, results, cry, wait – repeat.
You don’t become good at everything, but you do get better at some things. As the weeks and months pass, I surrender my solitary inclinations and become a joiner. I now understand what it means to share victories and losses with my team. It is a hard-won knowledge, gleaned only by learning the rules in the thick of the game.
We’re all fumbling – metaphorically and otherwise.
On my third trip to Sunnybrook, once I’ve officially joined Team Lymphoma and been told my lazy cancer is statistically unlikely to win, I stand almost joyously looking down into an atrium, waiting to hand over blood. The man beside me – he looks nervous and new – drops his requisition form. I bend to pick it up. He smiles. Ten seconds later, he drops it again. I hand it to him and tease, “Are you done yet? If it goes over the balcony, I’m not going down there to pick it up!” We break into fits of laughter.
There’s a farm team.
At 8:15 one morning, a family sits across from me in the cramped CAT-scan waiting room. Parents slumped silent. Son, maybe 19 or 20, two seats away: open high-top sneakers and hospital gown; skinny, hairless ankles. He should be sleeping in, not sitting here, almost naked, with his mom and dad. His name gets called. He hands his parents the hospital-issue plastic bag in which he has stuffed his clothes. Only two words pass between them: “Hold these,” he says, and follows the nurse. I wish I got to cut players.
People can make bad calls, with the best of intentions.
That same day, when I finish my CAT scan, a middle-aged man, wearing his gown, black socks and dress shoes, nods at me from his chair in the waiting room. He must be on his way to work. “I was trying to read the technician’s face,” I say. (The last one, who told me I had nothing to worry about, was wrong. This one looked concerned, but all she said was, “Wait for the table to lower; don’t jump off.”)
The man laughs, and shakes his head. He knows what I’m talking about: How eager we are to read the signs – to embrace fragments of unsubstantiated good news, or see our own ruin in someone else’s crappy morning.
In the blind relay, finishing doesn’t matter.
Balls of wool and half-knitted hats and scarves sit in baskets in the waiting rooms. Tables are covered in puzzles at various stages of completion. But completion is not the goal. These gifts of distraction require many people’s handiwork and no one’s ownership. The knitting-needle and puzzle-piece batons don’t need to be passed directly. It is enough to know that a teammate will move the project forward. And when it’s finished, someone else will cast on, begin the next lap.
Be grateful for your cheerleaders.
I stop in front of a carefully dressed woman in her 70s. (Not everyone here is pulled together; sweats and pyjama bottoms are not frowned upon.) She is smiling at me from her seat. I smile back.
“I remember you,” she says. “You were here another time. You were crying, you were so sad.”
My eyes instantly refill.
“I’ve been praying for you.”
I do remember sobbing, after they told me my chances of the biopsy turning up cancer were 50/50, and the time the oncology gynecologist said cancer-lymphoma, but wouldn’t tell me more. I now convince myself I remember her, too.
“Thank you. It’s been hard, but I’m feeling a lot better.”
“You look beautiful.”
I don’t know what to say.
“The doctors and nurses are very good, but it’s Him who’s looking out for us.”
She smiles upward. I reach out and put my hand on her shoulder. Her faith is contagious.
You really want to finish first.
For my rookie chemo, all four of the chairs are filled. I’m the only one having allergic reactions: itchy ears and throat. The nurses stop everything and call my oncologist, which slows me down in the chemo Olympics. I’m trying hard not to be envious of my compatriots, whose infusions are going with neither hitch nor itch.
By the end of the day, I am in a runoff for the bronze. Gold and silver have long since left the building. My competitor, a guy my age who is sprinting through his IV bags, also has lymphoma. He had come in a couple of hours after me. I had a huge head start, but I don’t care: I’ve been hooked up for seven hours, am woozy from Benadryl, and eager to be done. In the end, my machine beeps its finish before his. “I got the BRONZE!” I yell. We both laugh, and wish each other well.
Eventually, you get your game on.
A few weeks after my first treatment, I stride toward the main door of the Odette Centre, smiling support left and right to fellow players. I know the drill. Just a month earlier, I so desperately didn’t want to belong here, ever. Now I do. And it feels okay. These are my people.
Aviva Rubin blogs about enduring, enjoying, bemoaning and lampooning life with cancer at nothinginmoderation.ca. Follow her on Twitter at @aviva_rubin.