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The People in Your Cancer Neighborhood

Connections on the cancer ward are Inevitable, but fear of loss can make those relationships painful.
PUBLISHED April 17, 2018
A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at
As I walk through the metal detector at the entrance to Shaare Tzedek Medical Center, I find myself humming the popular song from Sesame Street.

Who are the people in your neighborhood? They're the people that you meet each day!

Since starting on my cancer journey last November, the walls and halls of the hospital where I'm getting treated has become my new neighborhood. Sometimes, I feel like I spend all of my time within this facility, and the myriads of people I've met have become my new friends and neighbors.

It's an eclectic group of people, from staff members to patients. Yair, who I've dubbed Mr. Motorcycle, was my technician during my repeat PET/CT after round three of R-CHOP. He entered the room wearing a leather jacket and sandals, with a black motorcycle helmet tucked neatly under one arm. While preparing to inject the radioactive materials into my arm, the strains of Evanescence, a rock band from the late 1990s played as his ring tone. I knew we could have been really good friends when he referred to the reinforced cement room where I was to spend an hour in isolation drinking cup after cup of disgusting liquid, as “the Pub.”

Some of these new relationships are superficial; I trade weekly pleasantries with Yael at the front desk of the hematology-oncology day clinic. Each week, I rattle off my identification number and remind her that I'm allergic to almonds, which merits me a red bracelet for the day instead of a green one. I ask Nechamah, one of the newer nurses on the unit, about her two young children as she draws my blood and changes the dressing on my PICC line. With Hila, the volunteer holistic therapist who does reflexology to help me relax prior to a daylong treatment session, we discuss proper nutrition and deep breathing techniques.

Yet, while sitting in the waiting room amongst all of the patients, I've been pretty guarded. Sure, I've smiled and said hello, but I've been hesitant to make real connections with the other cancer patients. It's a defense mechanism; I recognize that not everyone going through treatment will necessarily walk out of the hospital cured. I fear the pain of loss that might occur if I connect with someone else fighting cancer and they don't end up winning their battle.

Still, connections during treatment are inevitable, and now I use WhatsApp to keep in touch with my cancer friends. I ask Sarah, currently in remission, about what to expect with the next phase of my treatment plan. With Liel, who is four days ahead of me in her cancer treatment, we commiserate over Neupogen-inflicted pains and prednisone-induced insomnia. While with Jennifer, a cancer ,mom, we wish each other happy holidays and chat about makeup tips and cancer couture.

As I wait my turn in the department waiting room, I filter through the different languages spoken all around me. Arabic, Amharic, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Russian and English. I observe all of the other patients, some with weathered skin and tattooed numbers on their arms, others young, bald and stocky build with tan skin and shadows beneath their eyes. And I smile and think about the lyrics to the theme song of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, one of my favorite shows from childhood.

So let's make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we're together we might as well say,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?

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