To celebrate the one-week anniversary of my first chemotherapy treatment, I visited the cancer center today to be weighed (down three pounds) and have my blood counts checked (also down).
To discuss these findings, and my experience and concerns about side effects, I was ushered into a space the size of a modest living room lined shoulder to shoulder with tired and sickly looking folks in reclining chairs, IV poles at their sides.
"I'm not getting chemo today," I said, hesitating at the door.
"I know," said the nurse's aide, pointing to a single chair at the end of the gauntlet. "You can sit there."
I tried to disregard the audience as my vitals were taken, as a nurse, sitting in an unoccupied chemo chair, told me I had only about 400 white blood cells in my entire body and detailed the precautions I need to take to avoid infection.
With a second nurse, I tried to discretely express my concerns about some digestive challenges I've been having. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, struggling to explain but not making much progress. "How do you know it's not your colitis?" she asked. With that word, I hit my limit. I'm not sure I know what colitis is, but whatever trouble I've had in the past has been remedied entirely by changes in diet. The problems I'm having now are most definitely chemo-related.
I don't know why I was so uncomfortable in that environment when I can say in this public forum without hesitation or hedging that I have inflammation from my mouth and nasal passages down through my entire digestive tract, including, in one instance, enough rectal bleeding that, though modest in the scheme of things, nonetheless caused me to feel alarm.
It must have something to do with the word colitis. I guess I just don't like that word.
Nor did I like that room, a room I did not know existed, I'll call it the Economy Class Chemo Lounge, where friends and family who might come along to lend support would have to stand at your feet, or wait in the hall.
There is another group chemo room, I've seen it, where there are acres of space between the chairs, a veritable lawn of white linoleum tile. Why is one room so spacious and this one so cramped? I have no idea.
"You know, I just realized, I don't feel comfortable talking about this in front of all these people," I told the nurse.
"I'm sorry," she said. But she did not offer another venue. And so, before long, I wrapped up the conversation and took my leave.
I cried for a long time in the car, gut-wracking sobs like I haven't had yet in all the time since my diagnosis, about myself but also about all those people in that room, alone with their books and magazines, how all of us are suffering and none of us know, not really, if this grueling treatment is actually going to work. I have a growing worry about my other breast. What if, after this hard six months is behind me, they find cancer in my other breast? Then what? And what about the bleeding, hell, call it colitis if you like, but what about it? What if it comes back worse next time around? What else could happen? I used to think that was a rhetorical question. Now I know it is not.