With two cycles of chemotherapy under my belt I am no longer wondering how this experience will play out. The post-chemo side effects hang on a few days longer than the last time I went through this and are harder on my system. As a physician and a veteran of cancer treatment, I am less docile, more directive with my healthcare providers. But the view from the other end of the stethoscope or the needle is essentially a patient's perspective and the root of that word is "suffer."
I walk into the infusion center every three weeks knowing that the medicines I will consent to receive bring both a blessing and a curse. I have in my mind the saying, "The truth will set you free — but first it will make you miserable." I accept the relatively short-term misery for long-term gain. I am not alone. Crossing the threshold and choosing my recliner I join a fellowship of others who are on a similar journey. There is not much conversation, but I feel a kind of communion that deepens over the hours. Each of us has our IV pole, a pillow, a blanket, our little bag of resources to pass the time, and we share the nurses who circulate quietly and attentively to check our progress and hang new medicines as quickly as the old ones are finished.
Hope hangs heavy in the air, even as the side-effects of treatment are everywhere in evidence. We are mostly hairless beings, thin and pale. We all know how to unplug our IV poles in order to make our way to the bathroom down the hall. We are all willing to take the consequences of this treatment. There is coffee by the nurse's desk, but few of us drink it, even avid caffeine-lovers like me, because our taste buds have succumbed to the chemo and everything is metallic. So we have our water bottles and electrolyte drinks, our crackers and protein bars to take the place of favorite foods. And thanks to the premedication, we all doze through most of the day while the drugs come in to do what we hope they can do for each of us.
The next week or so at home always begins with the thought that "maybe it won't be so bad this time." There are always little adjustments from the previous episode that might make a difference. After about 24 hours, the fatigue, nausea and bone aches make bed the most comfortable place. It's a foggy time, and I take notes to remind myself what medicines I took when. My word for this period is "allow." I allow the medicines and all their effects. I allow myself to be tired and weak. I allow my sisters to wait on me, to check-in on me, to let me sleep. I allow the prayers of others to lift me when my own prayer is just a sigh. I remember the paralytic in the Gospel whose friends carried him to Jesus, hoisting him up on the roof and then letting him down at Jesus' feet. I allow myself to be on that pallet, to depend on the strength, ingenuity and faith of my friends to get me to Jesus for healing.
Midway through this time I become impatient. I grow tired of being tired. Nothing tastes good — not even ice cream — and a kind of cabin fever sets in. I count the days since chemo and expect that I should start feeling better soon. My Gospel companion at this point is the woman with the hemorrhage, the one who had suffered for 12 years at the hands of her physicians and used up all her resources on horrible, useless treatments. I am with her as she gathers her strength and pushes her way through the crowd, determined to touch even the hem of Jesus' garment. I grab onto her apron as she winds her way between the onlookers. I hold on for dear life when she pushes through like a fullback, and I trust her to get me where I need to be. At this point it's okay to be pushy. We are desperate together and we press forward until we fall at Jesus feet, making our final lunge for the hem of his garment. But here is where I find the scene changes. As my hands are clutching for that fabric, I find the hands of Jesus on my own, warm and strong. I am lifted up, weak as I am, and I feel a healing pour into me. "Be patient, daughter!" I rest and wait upon his strength.
Gradually, a few hours at a time it seems, the fatigue and all the other symptoms fade away. My head clears and food begins to taste good again. I feel almost giddy with gratitude, not just because the miserable days are done but because there is a resurgence of the life force within me. I am grateful to walk down the driveway or to make a loaf of bread. I enjoy every little thing that lost its brightness in the misty days post-chemo. I am thankful for the return of strength and the re-entry to the routine of community life: the prayers, the meals, the conversations, the walks, the little chores. . . . It's like a homecoming — to myself and everyone else.
Gratitude is the overwhelming feeling of the final two weeks of the treatment cycle. The giddiness subsides, and I find myself in the company of the 10 lepers healed by Jesus. I am grateful beyond words, for the treatment I am able to access, for healthcare providers and my community of caregivers, for those who continue to weave a network of prayerful support that carries me through this time of my life, for my body and its tremendous resiliency. My prayer is very quiet in these days, often with just two words: "Thank you!" As Meister Eckhart says, if that is the only prayer I ever pray again, it will be enough.
[Janet Gildea, SC, has been a contributor to Global Sisters Report, writing on immigration and other topics from the U.S.-Mexico border. Janet began chemotherapy for recurrent ovarian cancer on October 6, 2015, an experience that she will be sharing in GSR over the next several months. Readers are also welcome to visit her blog, "Each Day Counts" at janetsc.wordpress.com. Access her Inter-Mission columns on GSR here.]