It’s 2:00pm on a Thursday in early May. I step one foot in front of the other in the crowded oncology waiting room, eyes downcast. I think about all the people in the room and if their prognosis is as bad as mine. I can’t look them in the eye either way.
Blood pressure elevated. All kinds of trepidation. As I approach the registration desk, I imagine walking the plank.
“Hi, I’m here for the chemo class?” All of my statements sound like questions now. I have cancer? It’s stage IV metastatic adenocarcinoma ALK-positive?
“Oh sure! One second, we have something for you.” This the is the most cheerful I’ve ever seen a medical assistant at Kaiser Permanente. They were far grumpier checking me in for prenatal visits.
The woman behind the desk hands me a shapeless orange vinyl bag. I half expect it to be filled with conference swag.
“Is this my ‘Welcome to Cancer’ bag?” I ask incredulously. The medical assistant laughs but her eyes are sad. The jokes don’t land well here.
Doesn’t matter. The Welcome to Cancer bag gives me great joy. I spread it out on a waiting room table and take pictures.
I pretend I’m in the room with a bunch of freshmen awaiting our dorm assignments and complaining about the whack-ass welcome bag. But before I can dream up any more, we are called into a small supply closet of a room with our families to begin our orientation.
Once inside, we file around the table and are handed out a second, better welcome bag that looks like Kaiser Permanente’s looking to save the environment by doing their grocery shopping at Safeway with reusables. It’s stuffed with a blanket, tissues, chapstick, headcap, mittens, a water bottle, and sad word search puzzles with answers like “hope” and “faith.”
I hold it and stare blankly for a moment. All those goodies are a mask for the real purpose of the bag—which is to conceal an overstuffed folder containing all the terrible shit that’s about to happen to you, courtesy of chemotherapy.
We grab that terrible folder and spend the next 60 terrible minutes going over all that terrible shit. I learn I can’t have sushi, unpasteurized cheese, or, if numbers are down, even raw fruits and vegetables. I become irrationally upset that I can’t dye my hair, even though I know I will lose it. I chuckle to myself as it strikes me that chemo restrictions are similar to pregnancy restrictions (which I hated with a burning passion).
The chipper woman seems to be some kind of succubus. The more she talks, the more resigned and overwhelmed and exhausted and depressed the cancer patients and their families appear. The more resigned and overwhelmed and exhausted and depressed we all appear, the happier she gets.
Happiness doesn’t land well here, either.
At the end of orientation is one last punch to the gut. We get the tour of the infusion center.
It’s about as horrible as it sounds. Dozens of miserable humans packed in adjacent chairs getting poison shot into their veins. Some especially sick folks are in hospital beds in private rooms in the back. Many have lost their hair. Many still wear that now-familiar expression of resignation and exhaustion and depression.
Our admin takes her joy at other people’s pain level up a notch as she walks us around. This is where you’ll get your chemo. Some folks bring books to read, others just listen to music. You can do whatever you like!
Lady, this ain’t no spa. I’m not impressed with your tour. In fact, I’m horrified.
The anxiety I felt before going into the class is now compounded by about 10, and my husband, mother, and I spend the next 12 hours pretending everything’s cool while we all separately fall apart. My appointment for chemo was at 9am on Friday.
I wasn’t ready.