But now, having lain under the radiation beams and watched the bright-colored cytotoxins of chemotherapy travel down the drip lines into my own veins, I wish I could counsel her differently. "Take your best shot," I would tell her. For most people, chemotherapy is no longer the chamber of horrors we often conceive it to be. Yes, it is an ordeal for some people, but it wasn't for me, nor for most of the patients I got to know during my four months of periodic visits to the chemo suite. Dosage now is so carefully calibrated and buffering drugs so effective that on the days after treatment, I felt no worse than if I had a bout of low-grade flu. Steroids staved off nausea, and white cell boosters took care of other potentially debilitating symptoms. While I certainly would have preferred to go through life without having to learn to self-inject the white cell booster, eventually even jabbing a hypodermic into my own abdomen became routine.
Because of those steroids and white cell boosters, I never took to my bed. I never threw up. I covered my bald head with beautiful scarves and went on as usual, taking my son to school, walking the dog, going to the theater, seeing friends. Life developed its own odd rhythm: I learned to allow for one lousy week immediately following treatment, and then to expect two pretty ordinary ones, when I felt almost normal and forgot about cancer for hours at a time.
There were gifts I would never have received were it not for cancer. Friends and family showed their love in every conceivable way, from casseroles and flowers to handmade necklaces and copies of diverting trash such as the National Enquirer. From Denver my atheist friend sent a note saying that as he could not include me in his daily prayers, he was including me in his daily anxieties. I felt buoyed by believing friends who sent Lourdes water or pictures of the Medicine Buddha, stood up to pray for me in synagogues or arranged for a monastery of Tibetan monks to chant on my behalf. One friend trudged into Kurdistan to tie a scarf to a holy rock, another solicited the prayers of a Shiite ayatollah. The very ecumenism of all this reminded me of the many odd corners my life had led me into, and made me more appreciative of the time I'd already had to live so fully, to travel and explore.
Like my Denver friend, I am not a believer, and cancer didn't convert me into one. But although I didn't consciously turn to any higher power, I did experience something for which the only useful term I can find is “grace.” It is hard to explain the feeling, but it was a sense of being given just as much strength as the time demanded. I thought of the physicist Niels Bohr, who reportedly kept a horseshoe over his door. Friends would say to him, disparagingly, “You can't possibly believe in that,” and Bohr would answer, “Of course not.” And then he'd add: “But I hear it brings good luck whether you believe in it or not.”
I saw another side of my husband, whom I had always loved for his abundant, productive energy, not knowing that a gentler, patient man lurked within. Setting aside my book deadlines, I had more time to enjoy being with my son, then just 8 years old. The steroids I took gave me an unnatural, jagged energy and kept me up at night. It wasn't fun, being unpleasantly wired. Sometimes I felt as if I'd been taken over by an incubus on those steroid-addled days and nights. But even this had an upside. When my son would wake from a bad dream, instead of grunting sleepy words of consolation and ordering him back to bed, I'd invite him to join me for hot cocoa and a midnight chat.
We Hear You!