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Survivors and Healers

I didn’t like thinking of myself as a “survivor.” There was something … I don’t know. Something a little shameful, maybe, about it.
BY Geoffrey Norman
PUBLISHED October 18, 2018
There were several people ahead of me in the line, and a woman behind a table asked each of them, when it was their turn, “Are you a survivor?”

If the person said, ”Yes,” the woman would ask, “How many years since your diagnosis?”
The person would answer, and the woman would say, “Congratulations. Keep up the good work.”

She would hand the person a clipboard and say, “Now sign here.” And then she would give the person a pin with wording that read: “Cancer Center Community Crusaders,” and a design that featured a dove in flight and a kind of flaming torch.

Once you had signed your name and been given your badge, another woman would hand you a ticket for the lunch that would be served in a couple of hours in a large tent that was across the little meadow, a hundred yards or so away. There were a couple of dozen smaller tents, closer to the sign-in table. People were moving around from tent to tent, browsing and buying whatever was for sale. Hats, T-shirts, jewelry, homemade jams and jellies. The usual.

I wasn’t sure how I would answer the woman’s question when it was my turn. Wasn’t really sure why I was here. I didn’t like thinking of myself as a “survivor.” There was something … I don’t know. Something a little shameful, maybe, about it.
           
I had parked, this morning, in my usual place, in the rear of the Southwest Vermont Regional Hospital’s cancer center. It was where I had always parked, almost clandestinely, when I was going through my treatments. I chose that spot because it allowed me to use a sort of semi-private entrance to the hospital’s cancer center. It was a small community hospital and when you used the main entrance, there was always a chance you would run into one of your friends or neighbors. I didn’t want any of those people to see me leaving or entering the cancer center.

So, of course, coming through what I thought of as my secret entrance one day, I practically bumped into a man I knew. Well enough, in fact, to have done some trade with him. He was going out as I was coming in and he was as surprised and embarrassed as I. We both mumbled something and hurried on. He, to his truck and me to check in for that day’s treatment. We’ve seen each other often since then, but neither of us has ever mentioned that chance meeting. We might as well have run into each other at a particularly sleazy strip club.

Well, today the mood around me was different. A lot different. This was National Cancer Survivor day (June 3rd) and none of the people ahead of me in line were the least bit embarrassed when asked if they were survivors.

Until it was my turn.

“Good morning,” the woman behind the desk said in a kindly way. I suspect she sensed my nervousness.

“Are you a survivor?”

“Ah … well, yes.”

“Well congratulations. And how long since your diagnosis?”

“Three years … maybe four. I’m not sure.”

“Well,” she said, “wear this pin and keep up the good work. And don’t forget your lunch ticket.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks very much.”

I moved out into the area where the tents were set up. It was a windy day and some of the guy lines needed to be tightened. I recognized a man wearing an orange T-shirt who was working on a tent that was in trouble. I had figured out, by now, that orange was the official color of this event, but it took me a minute to place the man wearing the shirt. Then it came to me. He was one of my doctors.

He looked up and saw me.

“Good to see you,” he said. “Congratulations and thanks for coming.”

“Sure,” I said. Then I lied and said, “I wouldn’t have missed it.”

I still wasn’t sure exactly why I was here.

The doctor was too busy to chat and, anyway, as intimate as our dealings had been for several months, I didn’t think we could manage much in the way of small talk. He went back to work on the tent and I continued to stroll the grounds.

I recognized a couple of people I knew, but not well. Both of them smiled in a friendly but somewhat surprised way. As if to say … “You? Really.

There was no good reason for that reaction. No reason to believe that this person would be a cancer patient and that person would not. The disease clearly doesn’t play favorites. My wife has survived two cancers. Her mother and my father both died young of cancer.

We have neighbors on either side of us who are either in chemo or recently completed the treatments. Some days it seems like most people I know are either in treatment or remission. This isn’t so, of course. But if there isn’t more cancer than there once was, the disease has certainly come out into the open.

There was a time, not that long ago, when you didn’t talk about it. When the word, itself, was vile and barely speakable. People died “after a long illness.” (Which also became the standard euphemism in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.)

The days when cancer was somehow shameful and the word, itself, rarely spoken are, of course, well behind us. Which is undeniably a good thing even if there are still people such as I who don’t like to talk about it.

It would be hard to keep cancer a secret even we all wanted to. Almost two million Americans were diagnosed with cancer last year and over half a million died of the disease. Cancer kills more Americans in two years than have died in all of the nation’s wars.

Still … progress is being made; new therapies are being developed, tested, and then used on patients, most of whom have not responded to traditional treatments. But hopeful as much of the news about cancer research is, and ambitious as the effort to find a cure has become – with the promises of a “Moonshot” program – for most cancer patients treatment means surgery, radiation and chemotherapy – “cut, burn, and poison” in the jargon of the trade. Recurrence is always a possibility and “remission” comes with no guarantees or warranties.

I suspect that most people who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer don’t file the experience in the same folder with the other big medical events of their lives. You heal from a broken leg or a fractured skull. You recover from pneumonia. But even when the doctors tell you that your cancer is in remission, that there are no signs of a recurrence, you wonder. And the wonder is tinged with dread. A dread that never leaves. You didn’t “catch” cancer. Your own body generated it – brewed it up in the mysterious cauldron of cells that make up the flesh, bone and blood of you. If your body could betray you once, you think, it could do it again. The second time may even be easier.

This might account for the “survivor” ethos. I’m not aware of any survivor groups and events for people who have had heart attacks and lived. If there are, they are considerably less conspicuous than those for people who’ve been treated for cancer and now think of themselves as “survivors.”

In some ways, I suspect, many of those people probably think that they survived the treatments as much as the cancer. You might not even know you are “sick,” you might be feeling fine when the lump is found, and the biopsy comes back with the bad news. The treatments, however, are another thing.

On those days when I had parked behind the cancer center and used the semi-secret entrance, I would take a deep breath and try to make myself strong before I pushed through the door. The waiting area would be occupied by people – most of whom I came to recognize – who were watching CNN or reading magazines and newspapers or just sitting and staring. At the walls, out of the windows or into space. A couple had scarred faces where the surgeons had removed parts of malignant jawbones, Others had the gray pallor that comes after the first couple of sessions of chemo when whole world becomes monochromatic. A few had, of course, lost their hair. Some wore wigs; others made do with stocking caps, since wigs are expensive and people in rural Vermont don’t have money for vanities. Some had lost weight that you couldn’t imagine they would ever get back. The disease, you thought, had more appetite than they did.

I would nod to the people I recognized, and they would nod back. We might pass an idle word or two. Nothing, of course, about how we were feeling. We left that subject alone.

The doctors, nurses and tech people were cheerful. With most, it was professional but still not insincere. Others seemed genuinely happy with their work. Which always struck me as just short of remarkable. I wouldn’t have lasted a day.
           

I ran into one of those cheerful people while I was cruising the grounds and inspecting the merchandise at the various tents, and heard someone call my name. I turned and was face-to-face with one of the techs who had been involved in my treatments. Her name was Danielle.

She was smiling, and she gave me a hug. First time for that. It would have been unprofessional in our many previous encounters.

I hugged her back.

 “How are you?” she said.

I told her I was fine and that this would account for the fact that she hadn’t seen me around.
Weak, but she smiled nevertheless.

“How,” she asked, “did the Tide do last year?”

I’d been wearing an Alabama sweatshirt one day when I went in for treatment. I live in Vermont but my roots – and my football loyalties – are deep in Alabama. Danielle had asked me to explain the meaning of the words “Roll Tide” on my chest.

So, I did my best. And I took out my smart phone and found the ESPN app and ran the promotional ad that is built around the phrase “Roll Tide.” She didn’t get it, but she thought it was funny. When I’d see her for my treatments after that, she would say, “Roll Tide,” and smile.
Always did wonders for my mood.

We talked there, at the gathering of survivors, many of whom she knew, who had been her patients. You’d have thought she might have seen enough of them – of us – and have preferred to spend her weekend among healthy people. People, anyway, who hadn’t been in treatment for cancer.

But, here she was and to look at her, and talk to her, you wouldn’t have imagined that she’d have preferred being any other place on earth.

We talked for a while. I asked about her colleagues. One of them, she said, was about to have a baby but she might be along later. Another was in a mountain bike race. I could empathize.

“Well,” she said, when we had done with the small talk, “keep up the good work. And Roll Tide.”
Roll Tide,” I said.

I resumed my slow circuit of the grounds. Stopped to talk to a couple of men who were working a giant grill. There must have been two hundred hamburgers on that grill. I liked it that cancer survivors were still allowed to eat hamburgers. Maybe this was considered a special occasion.

“Just going by the aroma,” I said, “I’d say you two are doing a first class job.”

“Doesn’t smell as good as those I do at home,” one of the men said.

“Why’s that?”

“We’re using gas,” he said. “Nothing but charcoal for me, at home. You can’t beat it. Taste and smell.”
I said I agreed with him, that I used charcoal at home. Which struck me as … oh, funny at that moment. Among the many things we are warned against as carcinogens, one of them is charcoal cooked food. Especially meat.

It had never occurred to me to switch from charcoal to gas grilling. Certainly not to stop entirely with the eating of meat cooked on a grill. Neither before, nor after, I’d become a “survivor.”

I honestly don’t know why that is. I try to look out for my health. I exercise. Keep a watch on my weight. Get my sleep. Avoid processed foods. And so on, and so forth. But there is a limit.

Thinking about that recalled the old joke about the man who had never smoked, taken a drink, caroused with women, and so on. He was lying in bed, breathing his last, and thinking to himself, “Here I am, dying of nothing.”

So I keep on using charcoal.

It would be a few minutes before the hamburgers were done and lunch was served, so I continued mingling and browsing and somehow found myself talking with a stranger. We started out agreeing that it was a nice day and a wonderful event and that we were fortunate to be served by such a fine little hospital where, like me, he was a patient. Before long, he was telling his story.

The colon cancer that his doctors hoped they’d detected in time had, in fact, metastasized.
“I start in on the chemo next week,” he said.

It was hard to know what to say, so I simply nodded and said, “Sorry.”

“Well, I’m optimistic,” he said. “Good hospital. Great doctors. I’m staying positive. No point, otherwise … “

“No.”

He said all this in a tone that was cheerful, almost sunny. And that might have seemed surreal – he was talking about cancer, after all, and a possible death sentence – except that here we were. A couple of survivors, surrounded by other survivors. We might have been strangers until this moment but now, there was this bond.

He eventually excused himself to go look for his wife.

I never got his name.

At lunch, I sat with one of the organizers of the event. Most of the Cancer Crusaders were survivors, she told me. Some were family members of patients who, sadly, were not. This event was one of their big fundraising efforts.

“They started about four years ago,” my lunch partner said. “In that time, they have raised about $165,000.”

In the world of fund raising for cancer research, this sounds like a rounding error. But I was polite enough not to say so. Even in this poor corner of Vermont, with its small, regional hospital, that kind of money wouldn’t go far. You hear about new drugs, like the one that has been developed to treat melanoma and costs more than $140,000 for just the first 12 weeks of treatment and $256,000 for a full year. I’d read that in the Wall Street Journal.

“So, they give this money to the American Cancer Society or something like it?” I said. Though I didn’t really phrase it as a question. Of course, the money would go to a bigger organization that would know how to handle it, one that budgets in millions.

“No. The money stays here. In the community.”

“With the hospital, you mean?”

“No,” she said. “The money is used to help patients with emergency needs.”

And then, she gave me a few examples.

“We have people who have been diagnosed and need radiation therapy. But they can’t undergo that therapy until they’ve had dental work. They don’t have any money and they haven’t been to the dentist in years. So, the Crusaders will give them the money they need to get that dental work done.

“Or,” she went on, “we have people who need to go to another hospital for some kind of treatment that we can’t provide here. Some of them don’t have the money they need to travel. Or they might have a pet at home that needs looking after. So, the Crusaders will hire someone to be a pet sitter and look in on a dog that might be that patient’s only companion and is even more important now.”

I didn’t know quite what to say.

“That’s …”

I was a little choked up, but thankfully she bailed me out.

“Have you gotten your cupcakes yet?”

“Pardon?”

We left the lunch tent and she took me to one of the booths where, for five dollars, I could buy a little plastic tray that looked something like an egg carton. The point was now to go around to various booths where cupcakes were on display. Pick the ones I liked and put them in the container. Five dollars for ten cupcakes. The cupcakes were donated. The money went to the Crusaders who would then use it to help cancer patients who couldn’t pay for the dental work they needed before the real medical ordeal could begin.

I paid my five dollars and went around to the various booths to make my selections. All the cupcakes had been made with care and, in some cases, a bit of whimsey in the decoration. When I had filled the little carton, I left it with one of the vendors for safekeeping.

I stayed another hour and can’t say why, except that there was something kind of … oh, peaceful about this gathering. Something quiet and comforting.

I experienced no great epiphanies. Simply felt like I had stumbled into something that was an antidote to the poisonous, angry spirit of the times. This, I thought, was the sub-political layer of American life. A place where you didn’t think about Donald Trump or any of the rest of that. Where you did a little something for the cancer patient who needed someone to look after the dog while he went for treatment.

It was the sort of sensation you experience when you pick up a bible after you haven’t read one for a long time, and come across the words:

            Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
            Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
            Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
           
Yes. And blessed are the Crusaders, too.
 
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