February 19, 2014…Ten years ago today, I graduated from chemotherapy.
Yes, that’s right, graduated.
At the Cancer Clinic in Victoria, British Columbia, on my last day of chemotherapy, I was treated to my own personal graduation ceremony (so was anyone else when they finished their chemotherapy treatments, btw!), complete with a mortar board with hospital tape tassels; the presentation of an official graduation certificate; and the singing of “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” by a group of good-natured nurses.
My graduation certificate, which I still have, reads, in part, “Congratulations to our very best chemo student ever!!!” Somehow I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only “best student ever”…but no matter, the attitude of the staff in the chemo treatment centre was always positive and supportive. The nurses outdid themselves in their efforts to be cheerful and light…and the room was light too—a large open space suffused by warm sunlight, and equipped with comfortable recliner chairs, with lots of room for family or friends to be there too, and smiling volunteers offering juice and cookies from their cart.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, once I got over the initial shock and faced the long treatment process—which spun out ahead of me like a thread unraveling from a dropped spool—I think the scariest part was the thought that I might have to have chemotherapy. It was the dreaded “no, not me” treatment that no one wants to face. When I was told, after my surgery, that yes, chemo was a must, well, that was not a good moment.
But there I was, several months later, and I’d done it. I’d gotten through chemotherapy, with a little help from my family and friends. Looking back, yes, there were times that were pretty miserable, but there were also times when I almost felt like a fraud—things weren’t always that bad, but man, I got lots of attention anyway. And part of that was when I was in the chemo centre, being pampered and cared for by the amazing team of nurses and volunteers.
One of the nurses, Arlene Venne, had been a chemo nurse for 19 years, and told me the chemo centre was her favourite place to work because “you can bond with people in the chemo unit. It is a very upbeat room after the first experience. It’s a family here.” That seemed to be the attitude of all the staff there, and I’d like to tell them again what a difference that made for my husband Russ and me.
I always brought my good luck talismen with me to chemo: three ceramic angels, a broken plastic dragon, a rock from Sombrio beach, and an afghan made for me by my dear friend, Ann. Russ and I inevitably brought (and played) Scrabble too.
On my grad day, I also brought with me my “chemo buddy” Lisa, whom I had met in the chemo orientation session, when we both started treatment at the same time, and instantly bonded; my daughter, Kristi, who came over from Vancouver for the grad; my journalism student, Olivier, who had asked to do a photo essay of my chemo journey (he later won a prize for that!); AND my sister, Emmy, and niece, Melissa, who had flown in from Massachusetts especially for the occasion. I highly recommend having someone with you during chemo, but never had my entourage been quite this large!
Unbeknownst to me, my sister, who is a speech pathologist and knows sign language, had quietly asked the nurses if she and Melissa could bring a CD player in and perform their own grad gift to me. The next thing I knew, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was heard singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, which segues into “It’s a Wonderful World”, and Em and Melissa were standing in front of us signing the words. I think everyone in the clinic stopped and watched and as for me, well, I started welling up the moment I heard it and realized what they were doing.
Finally…and this is one reason I’m thinking of all this today…it happened to be my sister’s birthday. After my memorable graduation “ceremony” was over, we took the butter pecan cupcakes we had brought and passed them out to everyone there—the nurses, our group, the patients and families and volunteers. As I passed them out, I reassured people, “You’ll get through this too. It does end.”
There is something about the communal experience, even, or maybe especially, in the chemotherapy treatment centre, that makes this all doable. Trust me. It’s ten years later….and I’m feeling fine.
Dedicated to the memory of my chemo buddy and cherished friend, Lisa Simpson.
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