M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is a surreal place. Walking in the main entrance, it’s not unusual to see two patients chatting in their lobby, each with their own rolling IV pole connected to an arm. More than once, I’ve seen someone walking out of the parking garage, rolling along an IV pole with one hand and talking on a cell phone with the other. Women with scarves on their heads. Men wearing woolly hats. Presumably, they’re outpatients getting their chemotherapy or other treatment and, to them, it’s just another day in the life.
The first time I walked into the place, I was bracing myself. This was a hospital dedicated to the fight against Cancer — the big awful C-word that sends dread into hearts. Surely it would be a depressing place to be, a place where reminders of death hide around every corner.
Instead, it’s light and airy, with amazing art on the walls and pretty much everything you need to live there — tasty room service, a laundry room for guests, a post office, a library, foosball tables for the young folks, and even a barber/beauty shop. There’s child care for people visiting with kids (12 and unders are a bit too germy for room visits), and I think I could do all my Christmas shopping in their gift shops. Eighteen-thousand people work for M.D. Anderson, making it — not even including the patients — a city as large as the one we lived in, in California. (It’s much larger than where we live today.)
Entering this place after we learned of my father’s leukemia diagnosis, I felt like we were entering another dimension entirely. Suddenly we were “the family” of a patient. We learned all sorts of terminology we’d gratefully had no need for before — “Blasts,” “Neutrophils,” “BMB” (for bone marrow biopsy). And words we knew, but didn’t fully understand the meaning of in this context, began to take on immense importance — “Rounds of Chemotherapy,” “CR” (for complete remission), “Side effects,” “prognosis.” (Xeni Jardin wrote beautifully about her own recent breast cancer diagnosis here.)
Blood cancer is a noxious thing. Most cancers are graded by “stages,” based on how much of the body the bad cells have invaded. Stage 1 = localized, possibly removeable. Stage 4 = everywhere. Blood cancer, by its very nature, has invaded the body pretty much completely from day one. It affects, literally, a person’s life blood — the thing that carries oxygen and energy to all of the body’s cells.
My brother and I — and probably most people — are planners by nature. We want to know what’s next, what we can do, how we can prepare — both mentally and physically. And in a situation like this, focusing on actions that you can take can be immensely consoling. It gives you something to do other than focus on the grim reality that very few people my father’s age are able to ward off this disease for any length of time, and it pretty much kills everyone, eventually.
So, we ask lots of questions and try to get ready for whatever comes. The message we get, though, from almost all fronts is… wait and see. We can’t know what’s coming — it all depends on how he responds. To the drugs, to the physical therapy, to the disease, to every aspect of everything. It’s a frustrating thing to hear for people who thrive on planning, on control.
Slowly, however, it’s been dawning on me. This is a message not just for leukemia patients and their families, but for everyone. No one knows how many days they have left with their loved ones. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. Will we be sick? Will we be well? Disabled? Mentally competent? They’re not questions that anyone can answer. Only time will tell.
All we can do is treasure each day as it comes along, telling those around us how much we love them, and enjoying every single moment in their presence. We can stop thinking and planning and doing, and just be with whatever conditions exist now. There’s good to be seen in pretty much any circumstance, if only you take the time to appreciate it.
So lets venture out of our respective hospital rooms, despite IV drips and lost hair, and live — for whatever time we have left.