The Bright Side of Cancer: You Are Not Alone

One morning at the hospital, early in my cancer treatment, they asked me if I was claustrophobic.  Those of you who have gone on medical journeys understand why–the docs need scans.  And to get those scans, they slide you into person-sized holes inside of big machines.  Fortunately, I am not claustrophobic.  (I was, however, a little non-plussed by the fact that they tie your feet together to keep you from moving.  I actually, seriously, made the techs promise that if the zombie apocalypse happened during my scan, that they would come untie me before fleeing.)  That settled, I proceeded to spend the day holding still and being bored.  Part of the holding still was the actual scans, and part of it was waiting for dye to move through my body, and none of it was fun (imagine someone tells you that you can’t scratch your nose and see how long it takes for your nose to start itching).


Fortunately for me, I am a writer, and so my imagination is quite robust.  I had my glasses off, so I couldn’t see much, and I just went away in my head and did far more interesting things than lying around.  During the scans, I mostly wandered the beach and went swimming with octopuses.  At some point, the beach scene became quite vivid.  I could actually feel the sand and smell the salt air.  I realized at this point that I was not alone.  My grandmother was sitting there with me, and unlike the octopuses, she was real.


My grandmother’s name was Eileen, and she died weeks before I had my first child, so about 14 years before I went through my cancer journey.  She was a tiny person with a huge personality, and I’d felt her with me occasionally before.  She lived near the beach in California, so that was probably why I’d felt that scene so strongly during the scan.  It struck me, though, while we were sitting in the MRI tube together, that she was probably there because she had been a nurse.  Despite my assurances to the medical staff, I was a little stressed about the scans.  The tubes are noisy, and you really are immobilized.  They were doing a great job of keeping me warm with heated blankets and explaining everything clearly and gently.  But deep down, I was a little bit freaked out, as well as worried about what the scans would show.  My grandmother knew that, I think, and she became one more person that day who cared about me and wanted the tube business to be as comfortable as possible.


We didn’t talk, my grandmother and I.  She just sat in the tube with me so that I wouldn’t be alone.  When the scans were done, her presence faded.  But I knew at that point that she was a part of my cancer team.


Then came radiation.  The scans spoke their language to the medical folks, and they set me up with a treatment plan that involved my lying around every morning without moving (and having my feet tied together).  And this time there was a tube that could actually move, and every morning it circled my face like a really nosy friend inspecting my makeup job.  Nuking yourself in the face is not something I’d recommend, because it hurts a lot, and it makes your throat swell up, both of which make it really hard to swallow.  So then I got to have a feeding tube put in.


I’ve said before how much I actually loved my feeding tube, because I felt so much better once I started getting adequate calories again.  And it was largely painless and easy to keep clean.  It did hurt sometimes, though, when I was trying to get it all wound up properly against my stomach when I wasn’t using it.  Theoretically, there was a comfortable way to fold the tube and secure it under a mesh bandage so that it didn’t pull and cause pain.  The nurses knew several ways to do this.  I did not.  I got it right sometimes by accident, and screwed it up quite a lot.  (I feel like I should mention that I was on heavy pain meds and not quite myself, but I am actually not that good on spacial stuff anyway, so it probably wasn’t just the drugs.)  When I messed it up, it wasn’t always a big deal, but sometimes it really hurt.


One night, I had gotten up to take pain meds, maybe around midnight.  I didn’t have to set an alarm for meds, the pain regularly woke me up.  I stumbled along to the kitchen, ground the pills, and put them through the tube.  And then I could not get the damn thing folded again.  Every time I moved it, it hurt.  I was exhausted, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep with it pulling so hard.


And then my grandmother was there with me, right in the kitchen.  We were standing in front of the stove.  And she said, very clearly, Stop messing with that.  I’ll do it.


I woke up the next morning with pain in my mouth and throat, but not on my belly.  I didn’t quite remember what had happened until I got to the kitchen and pulled up my shirt to start unhooking the tube.  It came back to me then and I stood there for a second, thinking things like Boy, these are good drugs, but also things like Woman, you are not really going to waste your grandmother’s trip all the way here from Heaven, are you?  I rushed to the bathroom and took photographs of the way the tube was folded.  I soon had it memorized, and I never had trouble with it again.


Now, I was indeed on drugs, and this vistation did take place in the middle of the night.  It would be easy for me to say, How else did I get the tube folded right?  But there is a rational explanation for that.  It could have been chance.  I have nothing that I can say that will convince people.  But I don’t care about that.  I am convinced that my grandmother showed up in my kitchen and in amused exasperation, addressed my medical needs as any nurse would.


If you are someone who can find it in yourself to believe such a story, then I have some things to tell you.  First, you are not alone in your cancer journey or any other of life’s struggles.  And second, love does not die, so love as fully and as widely as you can.  It will outlive you.

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