Thoughts About the Oncology Infusion Lab/Cancer Song

I have only one more month of infusion in the oncology lab at my hospital.  I’ve been going there for three years, weekly for the first year, and monthly since then.  I get bone strengthening infusions that somebody randomly decided should be given for two years after a stem cell transplant for multiple myeloma.  One more month.

At least now, it’s not so hard to find a vein for the IV.  It was pretty difficult when I was needing it weekly, and although I got a port type of thing for the transplant, that came out soon after.  Everyone there knows how much I hate getting that needle, and I can make some pretty awful faces when it’s going in.  The nurses always tell me (with my scrunched up eyes), “It’s in now.  You can relax.”  We’ve had some adventures where it wouldn’t go in until there were several tries (and different nurses).  We’ve had some adventures where blood has spurted all over the place.  And I’ve had some bruises that have taken almost a month to go away.

I actually know the nurses in the oncology lab pretty well now.  They are very friendly and comfortable, and we talk about all sorts of things when they have the time.  I know the adventures of one of the nurse’s daughters, who had to wear a hard back brace like I did, only she had to wear it for almost two years (for scoliosis), and I only had it about 7 months.   I remember hearing how she would take it off at school, and then leave it off till it was time to go home, and tell her mom she just couldn’t get it back on.   I know about her challenges in school, their trip to London, and the misadventures of getting their house ready to sell so they can move to a smaller house with more empty space around it than even exists in Oakland.

I know about another nurse’s grandchild, who is just a couple of months younger than mine, and can eat plates of spaghetti and broccoli (whereas mine eats beef tongue and octopus).  Her grandson can actually play with Hershey’s kisses without taking a bite if his mom tells him not to.  My grandson will find a way to climb up on the counter and reach on top of the fridge to where some old candies are hanging out, just so he can eat them all before anyone notices what he’s doing.

One nurse has a puppy that is her pride and joy, and we exchange dog stories as she gently takes care of me.  Another nurse actually brings her dog to the oncology lab, and she hangs out with the patients who are there for chemo,  blood transfusions, iron infusions, and bone strengthening infusions, like me.  She is a sweet therapy dog, always looking like she’d do anything for a treat, but content to hang out in her bed under the desk or on the floor near one of the chairs, if there’s none available.

And they know about me and mine.  First they know Sarita, because for a couple of the years she took me each time, and hung out, knitting or drawing for the graphic novel she’s making.  One of the nurses asks about that novel each time we see her, anxious to see how the oncology lab will be portrayed.  The nurses obviously know about the rest of my family, they know about my previous job, they know in what situations I’m a wimp and where I’m strong, and they know intimate details about my body that I’ve never really discussed with anyone before!

The point is, I will miss this place.  I will miss the stories, the friendships, the funny stuff that happens.  I can say this now, because I’m not throwing up after every visit, and I’m not visiting as often.  But it’s true.  One of the people that works there told me today that, “You will feel like there’s someplace you’re supposed to be, but can’t quite remember where…”  I think that’s probably true, and although I hope never to go there again, I will also never forget that I was a person that they all knew by name and personality, whether I came in crying because the emotional and physical pain was too much for me on a certain day, or whether I came in rather jauntily, as I did today, looking forward to some quiet time relaxing in a reclining chair, reading my book and munching on my snacks, and feeling like a part of a group.  Yes, that group is cancer patients with all different levels of challenges in their lives, but there is a camaraderie in suffering together and still hanging in there.

I remember one time there was a woman in a chair near me who started talking with me, and the subject came around to death, and how we thought about it more after having cancer, and how that changed us.  She was older than me, and seemed to have fought her cancer for a long time, and I got the feeling that she was getting ready to let go.  Her son got furious at me for daring to talk to her about such a topic and told me not to talk to her anymore.  There were no nurses close by at the time or I would have asked for help, but I thought that if one can’t talk about how cancer affects us in the oncology lab, there is no place left!  I stopped talking, because I didn’t want to upset the older woman, who didn’t seem to have any will to overpower her son, but I did tell a nurse later, and she said that he’d been asked to leave the room before.  I felt very sorry for that woman, not being able to talk to her son about her death.  That was an isolated case, but the point is, in the oncology lab, people will talk about surface things, and people will talk about really deep things, and some people don’t talk at all, just listen.  But it is very real, and very important, what happens there, at least for those of us with cancer.

One of the first stories I heard in the oncology lab was about a former cancer patient running into an oncology nurse in the supermarket years after she had gone into remission.  Just the sight of the nurse caused her to throw up and be sick.  I know these things can be true, because for the longest time after my transplant, I threw up whenever we had to go to Stanford for a check up, just because we were on the same road, driving past the same buildings, parking in the same places we used to go when I was in my sickest phase.  But that time has long since gone for the oncology lab that I visit regularly.

So I will miss my friends there, and will perhaps stop in now and then when I have an appointment across the hall, to see how all their lives are going.  But I really, really hope I don’t need to visit with any regularity after next month — I think I will actually be able to cope quite well with not planning that excursion in the future.  And I will never forget those good people that work every day to make a cancer patient’s life just a little more tolerable.

This is my cancer song:


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