My friend has breast cancer. The line elicits a wince, and a furrowed brow, and often a sorrowing head tilt. Sometimes it’s easiest to then say, “It’s a treatable kind though, and there’s no evidence it’s spread…” and for those who didn’t know what to say or do beyond the head tilt, this allows them to exhale and nod in relief and we can move on with other things. For anyone who’s been through cancer treatment though, the qualifiers don’t mean much.
Her cancer is locally invasive, and though there is no evidence of spread, she will spend the next year getting chemo and surgery, maybe radiation. One never entirely knows if the horses slipped out of the barn unnoticed before the doors were shut.
The night before her first chemo appointment, I dreamt I had a port placed just like she had, for delivery of the drugs directly into an artery. As the nurse snaked the catheter into my vessel, it made perfect dream sense. I could take maybe half the chemo for her and ease the side effects.
The next day, I walked to the hospital’s front desk and cheerfully asked where to “find my friend, who’s having chemo today,” in the same tone I’d used to visit her when she’d had her babies. Turning down the side hall from the bright lobby with its water feature and gift shop, I followed the bland carpeting down to the cancer center. Experienced patients were lined up in bays around the central station, quietly reading or listening to music while their treatments were administered. In my friend’s secluded room, the steady flux of close friends came and went over the full day’s treatment, and we were nervous, loud, making boob jokes, and death jokes, and assuring each other that we would get through all this like no one else ever had.
Bag after bag of drugs dripped in through the port she has and that I had only dreamed I had. We ordered hospital lunches: concave grilled cheese, a droopy veggie burger, a mostly frozen piece of lemon meringue pie. I thought of before her diagnosis, when the results were pending, and, in my optimism, I had still seen the path ahead where she did not have cancer, and we would talk about this as a scare. But she’d skidded onto this path instead, and the trail I’d seen dropped away from this ridge down into a place where she didn’t have cancer, harder to see with every step forward.
There is only so much of this trail that I can walk with her. Events that put our bodies in extremis isolate us utterly in some respects. I watched my grandmother die and though she was in my arms, she was a million miles away. When I was laboring with my two sons, it was not pain I felt, but terrifying aloneness. I was crouched at the bottom of the deep well of my body, and though I wanted someone to pull me out, or, failing that, to pull someone down with me, I could do neither. Sitting on my friend’s hospital windowsill, feeling my own body sound and strong, I watched poison pour into her heart, doing the job it does, and all its collateral damage too.
Though the prognosis is basically good, after these arduous months of treatment are over, nothing is sure. When my father had his heart attack almost ten years ago, I shifted into a new world where part of me expects, every day, to get a call that he’s dead. His life was no longer guaranteed after that day, as if anyone’s is. I do not trust his body though. I do not trust his heart to beat all the way through each day. When my friend is done her chemo, and surgery and all that, and I have every faith that we will be celebrating her clean bill of health a year from now, I will still step gingerly around the memory of these months. Her body will bear the visible scars, but these months are going to score us all deeply.
Late in the afternoon, I left the hospital, as another of her closest friends took over for the last shift and the drive home. We, the helpers, all come and go freely, untethered to infusion poles and pumps. We do not have to lie there, passively, control given over to the nurses and doctors, and so we cannot be in there with her, not fully. I was acutely conscious of the strength in my limbs, my unmarked flesh, my freedom as I passed through the outer doors back into the wide world. Back into the lobby, then outside entirely, free and healthy, my vision narrowed to a tunnel right in front of me and I felt my legs tremble. And I wished I could cry.