Thursday, March 12, 2015
Run/ Walk/ Bike/ Elliptical (Today: 0.00 miles; Running Total: 202.00 miles)
Day 244 of *Another* 100 Days of Good Karma.
I found out today why it’s so hard to give reassurance to someone else going through cancer.
When my radiation appointment ended I walked back into the dressing room so I could put on a bra and a real shirt. That’s my favorite part. Even with a roadmap of red and blue ink marks all over my chest I just feel so normal when I wear a bra.
An older woman maybe in her mid-seventies was in the waiting room.
She caught my eye and gestured to the door I’d just come from. “Do I wait here and they’ll come get me?”
She was wearing one of the ugly hospital gowns, not the donated smock I was wearing so I knew she was new to this.
“First day?” I asked, gathering my clothes and purse from my locker.
“Yep, just wait here. They’ll come and get you.”
She nodded again and paused a moment before saying, “What about my glasses? Will they make me take them off?”
As a glasses wearing person (since fifth grade!) I understood her concern immediately.
If you only wear glasses to read you might not understand this, but being without glasses is very anxiety inducing. The concept of ‘forgetting’ my glasses somewhere is foreign to me. They’re never far out of reach. If her eyesight was anything like mine (*ahem*. . . appalling) then I felt total sympathy.
Instead of heading into the dressing area I held my stuff in my lap and sat down in one of the waiting room chairs across from her. She clearly had questions and I wanted to help ease her concern if I could.
“Yes they make you take your glasses off,” I said gently.
But here’s where my help really ended.
“They give you these goggles for when you have to hold your breath,” I said. “Oh. Wait. Do you have to hold your breath?”
Based on her silence and horrified look the answer was ‘no’.
Only then did it occur to me that she might be fighting something other than a right sided breast cancer. With all the different types of cancer out there, that was a pretty specific assumption on my part. She might be facing something else entirely. Ovarian cancer. Or lung cancer.
“Oh. Well. Um, I have to hold my breath,” I was losing steam here. “So maybe they won’t take your glasses.”
“Did it burn you?” she asked me.
Okay now I felt on safe footing.
I shook my head. “I didn’t feel a thing.”
She held out her arm. “My skin is just so white and sensitive.” She held out her arm. It was indeed very pale, and due to her age, it looked as thin as tissue paper.
I showed her my arm. My skin is so pale you can see blue veins in it from three feet away. “I’m pretty white and this is my sixth treatment. I haven’t felt a thing yet.”
“I think I’m even whiter than you,” she said.
Only then was I struck by our age difference. Our skin gets thinner and more delicate the more we age, right? So who am I to say if she’s going to burn or not? I don’t know what seventy year old skin feels like or how sensitive it is. Maybe she will feel the radiation.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Radiation really hasn’t been that bad.”
As soon as it was out of my mouth, I knew it was a stupid thing to say.
Up until that moment I assumed she’d been through chemo and surgery like I had. But she had all her hair, and not in the super short form mine is in. Hers was at least three inches long and styled. So she didn’t finish chemo recently. Maybe she didn’t have to go through chemo at all.
Without chemo as a common reference point how could I say radiation wouldn’t be ‘that bad’ for her? I didn’t want to minimize her experience. Only last week I was the newbie and as nervous as this woman.
The body image therapist I’ve been seeing has mentioned multiple times that every cancer patient’s experience is different. Now I saw what she meant first hand.
The therapist said that some people think chemo is the worst part of cancer treatment. Others say surgery is the worst part. Still others swear that radiation is the hardest part of cancer treatment.
The therapist also said that she’d talked to women of every color during the radiation process. Sometimes women with more pigment to their skin (think African American or Hispanic) have a harder time with radiation than someone like me who gets a sunburn walking past a window.
There’s just no predicting how someone will react to treatment until they go through it. So while I badly wanted to assuage this woman’s concerns and tell her she’d be okay, how can I know?
For all I know, radiation is going to be the hardest part for her. If she didn’t have to go through chemo or surgery, I could see that being true.
One of the nurses came into the room and called her back. I wished her good luck and went into the changing room to put normal clothes on.
I thought about her for the rest of the day. I hope she had a good experience.
Today’s silver lining: This stranger helped me learn a lesson today.
She reminded me to not compare my experience to others. Every treatment experience is unique because every person is unique.
The next time I’m faced with this conversation, I will try very hard to just listen and understand the person’s concerns and not force my own experience upon them.
Because one thing is the same in all of us: We’re all scared.
And if I can do help someone by listening then I will.
What’s your silver lining today? I love comments!
Don’t want to leave a comment, but have something you want to share? Send me an email at gettingthewordswrong(at)gmail(dot)com.