Huge Breath. Deepest inhale. Longest exhale ever.
It was 6:45 a.m. and the cab barely came to a stop at the main entrance of MD Anderson Cancer Center. I had one foot out the door, full speed ahead, my heart pounding with no idea what the day had in store for me…us. In retrospect had we arrived 15 minutes later I may have had a heart attack eyeing “way too many people” wearing face masks and head scarves, attached to breathing tubes and chest ports, and assisted in wheelchairs. Many faces were so pale and almost white that I thought I had already died and maybe landed in hell. Often times this is the face of cancer: cancer diagnosis, cancer prognosis, cancer treatment, death by cancer. Yet for many it also means conquering cancer and surviving and thriving with cancer, at Houston’s world renown MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Understand that my initial introduction to cancer and MD Anderson Cancer Center did not only feel like an out-of-body experience, it was down right terrifying. At times I’m still scared, needing several deep breaths. I just want to reiterate this because I’m concerned that at times I may sound detached, cold, even harsh. Obviously this is (or was) my fear speaking from the “shock and awe”. There seems to be a fine line between feeling cold and detached; while also feeling compassion and sadness when dealing with the reality of having and “owning” my cancer. This is difficult for me to express (believe it or not). Who the F…… ever wants to own their cancer? It’s too damn politically correct for me. I’m trying. We all know that once we “own up” there is no denying what’s real.
People travel from every part of the country, even the world to see some of the world’s leading doctors in cancer treatment, research and care. I mention care because I have come to know that this is truly what MDA is all about: CARE. For all you skeptics and cynics (which at times includes me) I’m not putting MDA or any other medical institution on a pedestal; none are without internal or external problems. I’m aware! I have come to realize that I must be able and willing to trust, albeit cautiously, someone, somewhere, in some place. Trust and faith are critically important components for successful treatment of cancer and living with cancer – living well that is. Like I’m some kind of pro at this cancer thing – hardly!
Let’s go back to the cab at 6:45 a.m. Our threesome for the day was Steve, Monni & AL. We hurried ourselves through the pearly gates or was that a revolving door? (I was confused as to my whereabouts for a moment.) Once through the door we were immediately greeted by “greeters.” Welcoming, guiding, assisting, smiling – taking your hand if need be – greeters, right? Or, were they heaven’s angels? Again, a little dizzy and confused. I was seeing and hearing nothing but the drone in my head: go in the front door, turn right, go to elevator A, take it to the 8th floor, get out, turn right, head to the reception desk down the hall – you can’t miss it – Corrine will be waiting for you. My god there she was, ready and waiting with a big gummy, warm smile. Whew! I made it. “Hello, how are you today?” She even stood up from behind her desk and extended a hand. It was almost funny – ridiculous. Of course, nothing about anything here was funny. Wait! Except Monni – she kept disappearing with Steve’s computer to the cafeteria. Stevy ranted, “Where the hell is she? What the f… is she doing? Probably ordering 6 main courses with everything on the side, dry, extra this and that and a carry out!” Ha! Yes, that was funny.
The staff at MDA does everything possible to put you at ease and make this awful experience as pleasant as possible. Everyone, smiling and happy to see you – unbelievable. They are special people! Within 20 minutes, I met three more lovely women, each had their role in the patient in-take and registration process. What? Do they clone these people? MDA has this down to an absolute science. Nothing goes wrong here; no one gets lost in the shuffle, forgotten about, mistreated or ignored – quite the contrary.
Fortunately, I had about 30 minutes to warm-up, settle down, breath again, settle in. Realistically I was “de-sensitizing” and preparing myself to be in this place (which really wasn’t possible). My brain felt like one of those kid’s flip books. Everyone and everything moving so quickly (so it seemed). On every page, masses of sick people, people who are sick but don’t know it yet, people dying but not dead yet, their caretakers, volunteers pushing beverage carts, pushing wheelchairs, passing out pamphlets and magazines, staff moving about in every possible direction, andÂ names being called from various stations, desks and doorways.
Waiting anxiously for my name to be called for what would be the first of many times today and into the evening. I imagined the stories of some of the people sitting near by. For instance, the woman sitting across from me – she was always plugged in. I’m sure she was trying to detach from her surroundings by losing herself in music or maybe she was listening to a meditation tape. She looked so healthy and normal, very pretty actually – I loved her boots. Monni leans in with a comment, “She sort of looks like you, know what I mean? Like your type of woman – we could be friends perhaps?” Sure, I thought – a new friend; one with cancer. I have enough friends right now – OKAY?
The guy next to me, also plugged in, sitting almost on top of me – I was growing more anxious and sick to my stomach with each new arrival to the waiting area. This space had become a holding tank for dis-ease and disease. Welcome to the neighborhood! My neighbor looked like a money manager type of guy: nice face, well-dressed, warm smile, nice computer, nice watch, very busy talking and word processing, talking numbers, etc. Turns out he was married to the woman I just told you about. Isn’t it interesting how we are drawn to certain people who we determine look and feel like ourselves? We actually became friends in that room, good friends, a special kind of friendship. Although we never spoke – only smiled.
I tried not to look at the person sitting in the wheelchair – he didn’t look to well if you know what I mean – too scary! Then there was this man, also in a wheelchair with half of his face missing, tubes everywhere – he could barely sit up. I thought to myself “What is the point?” I leaned over to Steve, “We need to revisit my ‘living will’ when we get back home. Ok? Do we have one?”
“Okay Al”, he muttered. He too was trying not to look – anywhere. Just at ESPN on his computer – hockey stats! Sorry Steve, we’re not getting anything other than Leukemia stats today!
“Allison Kaplan? How are you today? Please follow me”…to the room on the left…..and there we went…. and here we go!
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If you or anyone you know is living with cancer and would like to share your experience or thoughts about cancer, please let me know. I would love your input – we would all honor your input. Although Cancer: In Your Face has been about my personal experience with cancer, it is not only about me. Cancer effects many of us, our family and friends. Sharing your experience, stories and feelings helps everyone touched by cancer. Please feel free to contact me at info@Askinyourface.com.
With love and gratitude,
To read more on Allison’s Cancer journey, check out Cancer In Your Face.