Judging by the SIX emojis I used when I checked in to the TMH Cancer Center (I am calling it “The Cancer Center” in this blog) yesterday, I was happy that it would be our last day there. My father-in-law was completing his 35-treatment regimen of radiation therapy for neck cancer. That’s 35 days almost in a row, excluding weekends and the two-day “break” Dr. Sharp gave him before he began the last week.
I had been in a radiation waiting room before, when I was one of the people asked by my friend and former boss to accompany her when she was having radiation treatments for a soft tissue cancer ten years ago. At the time, I recall the professional yet somewhat crowded setting on the first floor of TMH, the limited parking, how kind the staff members were, how kind the patients were to each other, and most predominantly, the visual I would never be able to shake of the permanent tattoo on her skin where the radiation would be aimed, and how for those moments of making sure the treatment was administered accurately, her body was a mass of skin, tissue, and bone to be “done something to” — everything else about her life: her accomplishments, her failures, the people and things she loved and hated, her hopes — were of no importance.
When Dad was diagnosed with neck cancer and we were referred to The Cancer Center, the process began with an intake session, paperwork (of course!), and an orientation to what lay ahead.
Immediately upon walking in to The Cancer Center, it was clear that a lot had changed in ten years. The center, located at 1775 Healing Place, is a standalone building, with plentiful parking (yay!) and a lovely healing garden (I never had a chance to spend time there, but each day’s quick peek as I entered the building gave me a little glimpse of beauty.) There were always plentiful wheelchairs (and we all know how I feel about a scarcity of wheelchairs!). The receptionist always greeted patients by name. En route to the radiation area, a caretaker passes two full candy dishes as well as smiling volunteers and staff.
Although there are kind medical professionals other places, I am positive the cream of the crop works here.
There is a dressing area where the patient can go to change into a gown before heading in to “sub-waiting,” where they wait for their turn to be treated. (Because of the location of his tumor, Dad was excused from the gown-changing routine early on. No complaints from me about that!)
The actual process of receiving the radiation treatment is quite speedy. Still, 35 days of sitting in the same room with other people who are in the middle of being treated for cancer is not like 35 days of sitting in a car service waiting room or even in a general doctor’s waiting room until being called for a check-up. It’s the kind of 35 days that makes a person take notes …
Notes from Sub-Waiting
I missed Day 1 of radiation treatment because I was on my way back from my trip to New York, but on my Day 1, I nodded politely to the fellow patients/family members, but did not chat much. It was all new to me. By Day 35, I looked forward to seeing people I had come to know by name and was sad when our schedules resulted in missing each other. As “veterans,” we welcomed the people just starting their treatment plans and helped them feel comfortable.
Connections were established, and these people came to matter to me (and us to them).
Hospital Gowns Equalize
People who would dress completely different from each other outside of the cancer center all clothed themselves in the required hospital gown … and socks. Although Dad didn’t have to change, he did have to take off his outer shirt and sit there in a t-shirt. I wonder if I would have made different assumptions about these people if I had seen them in their street clothes. I hope not, but these patients rocked those gowns more confidently than Rihanna at the Met Gala. And socks-as-footwear has to be more comfortable (and affordable) than Manolo Blahniks, right?
Will the puzzle get done?
For most of the 35 days, there was a puzzle in sub-waiting for people to work on while they sub-waited. It was an autumnal foliage/church scene with an infinite number of shades of burgundy, gold, and rust. I never saw anyone working on it (my husband said he did (??)). I sort of messed with it one day but got distracted by the TV and my desire to finish reading Through Rose Colored Glasses: A Marathon from Fear to Love by Donna Deegan (which seemed an appropriate choice of reading considering the environment!).
The day I walked in and the puzzle was gone, however, I was sad! Did it get finished? Did someone just get annoyed with the snail’s pace at which it was getting completed? What happened to the puzzle?!
We Had Our Laughs
The fact that these people are dealing with cancer doesn’t mean it’s all anxiety and resigned faces in sub-waiting. As we got to know each other, we had our share of laughs. From the caretaker who said she used to be a stand-up comedian, with her “Help I’m standing and I can’t sit down” joke, to the array of unusual things you see on daytime TV, to Dad saying, “Booze? Yeah I like that” when the dietitian asked if he liked Boost.
We may not have chosen to be in sub-waiting but we chose to find reasons to smile.
What Will Happen?
Despite making connections and finding humor in our situations, you still don’t know why anyone is there specifically, nor is it appropriate to talk about it. While none of us needed to know the reasons the others were there, curiosity is human nature. Besides the curiosity about the reasons people were there, I want (futilely, I know) to know how their next chapters go. Will their time in sub-waiting end up being a footnote in their life story or is it a stop on the way to more treatments, more challenging health issues, less years in their lives?
Did you know you get a certificate when you complete your radiation treatment plan? AND as a bonus, your radiation mask. (Side note: check out this art made from discarded radiation masks.)
With the exception of a follow-up visit in three months, we are done. Some other patient will enter The Cancer Center Monday for the start of their treatment plan. Their caretaker will probably be as clueless as I was, having to ask where the dressing room is, how to get back out to the parking lot, what the phone number is for the treatment room.
Of course I am happy to be through with the daily trips that exhausted Dad and gobbled up time. But I am unhappy to leave behind so many lovely fellow patients, supportive physicians and staff, and unfinished stories.
Admittedly, I found this image on the internet and never saw this wording as I was leaving the building, but it is my wish for all of the fellow sub-waiting patients that they, too, “go in peace.”
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.