Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

{photo credit}
At chemo yesterday, I got to chatting with the woman sitting in the chair next to mine. She was petite, with perfectly manicured nails (in contrast to my big toes that are holding on to the last of a pedicure from more than a month ago.) She apologized for her raspy voice, said it was probably the radiation to her throat and chest. I asked whether she had throat cancer.

"No -- lung cancer," she told me. "My gym just named me fitness woman of the month in January, my husband had surgery, and then I had this persistent cough that they told me was pneumonia. It was not pneumonia. I mean, I was going to spinning classes and walking eighteen rounds of golf and then this."

I asked if they'd caught it early -- cancer small talk.

"No, it's Stage 4," she said meekly.

"Mine was, too," I told her. "From the beginning. That was almost three years ago -- breast cancer."

She was at the infusion center for her first chemo, but had been too dehydrated to receive it, so was just getting fluids. She confessed she wasn't sure if she'd continue to fight the cancer, she was so scared at the prospect of chemo, although she admitted she'd thought radiation had been a piece of cake.

"I'm lucky," she went on. "I've had a full life. I'm seventy-six."

I just about fell out of my chair. This woman did not look like a 76-year-old. She looked like the fitness woman of the month, with porcelain skin and a cute blonde pixie cut.

"I was always so healthy, had my tonsils out when I was five, but that's been it," she went on, expressing to me what I've come to know far too well: that cancer doesn't always care whether you're otherwise healthy. That cells mutate, go rogue, form tumors for reasons we don't fully understand.

We spent the next couple of hours chatting intermittently. My friend Sandi came to sit with me and encouraged this woman -- she introduced herself as Grandma Sue ("That's my mom's name! She's coming to visit and take care of me this week," I shared) -- to go forward with chemo. We both did.

But it got me thinking about what I would do if I were forty years older than I am now. If I didn't have Quinn and Chris and my (relative) youth to want to stick around for. Would I still put up this much of a fight? Would I feel lucky at the life I'd lived, and be ready to let go, to give up this life? The concept scares the daylight out of me, so I didn't pursue that line of conversation with Sue.

Instead, I did the only thing that I know how to do: gave her a vote of confidence that if she's healthy otherwise, she'll be able to handle chemo. Promised her that the meds they give to combat side effects are truly remarkable. We told her to watch a marathon of "Downton Abbey" when the fatigue lays her flat on the couch.

Even as I was talking, part of me felt like I was chickening out, taking the easy, familiar route rather than dive into why Sue felt it would be okay if she stopped getting treatment. I wasn't comfortable talking about accepting death. Does that part come after a certain amount of time living in cancer land? (P.S. I would not make for a good hospice volunteer.)

At the end of the day, Sue's 82-year-old, equally fit husband came to pick her up. She introduced Sandi and me as the ones who'd been giving her a shot of courage, and I was flattered. Then her husband shook my hand and said, "Thank you."


  1. I wonder the same thing sometimes. I know someone who died with Stage IV colon cancer, and he said he looked at death as a "great adventure." Prior to his illness, he was a very fit seventy-something. After his various rounds of chemo, he threw the towel in. I can understand his point of view. He died his way. Some elderly people also cling to life in that situation; everyone is different. Wonderful post.

    1. That means so much, especially coming from you, Beth. The more I think about this, the more I think I'd have a far different perspective on my mortality if I were forty or fifty years older. I hope I'll get to know how I perceive death at that age.

  2. I read your post while sitting in the hospital, waiting for the next round of paclitaxel (an hour from now). 'The road less traveled' is a poem we discussed in English classes, back in secondary school. I quoted the first lines (softly, I am at the hospital's internet cafe) and scrolled down to the picture when I said 'yellow wood'.

    What an impressive conversation with your chemo room-mate. Treatment was still unknown to her, it was the first time around. She may do well if she is so fit and looks so much younger. Glad to read you gave her courage.

    As young stage IV mothers, I think we are more likely to try different treatments than elderly patients. This reminded me of another English poem (British though), discussed in secondary school: Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night". We don't stop treatment as long as there are options left. We rage against the dying of the light.

    Hope you'll do well with your current treatment. My husband is travelling for a few days and I am alone with my 4-year old. I read about your struggle (3 is even worse than 4) and hope my son will be helpful when I get back home this afternoon. He knows the treatment can make me tired and is very aware of 'side effects'. But still, he is four, so he may as well throw his little cars around the room when all I want is rest.

    1. I love that line: we rage against the dying of the light. It is so true. Being young mothers certainly affects how we approach cancer. Parenthood can be so trying, but I want every minute of it. Lots of love to you (and your 4-year old).

  3. When I was going through chemo, I had almost the opposite scenario. I was near a lady who looked very old, and so very, very frail. Of course I didn't say anything negative, just smiled and talked about non cancer stuff, but in my mind I wondered if I would choose to go through the trials of chemo, if I were her age. I hope I get the chance to get to her age, and decide then! Maybe she has grandchildren she wants more time with, or a husband who will be lost without her. Definitely food for thought.

    1. I have seen those types, too, and also hope I'll get to be that age to see what choices I'll make!