Friday, April 5, 2024

A Full-Circle Moment

My grandma always taught me to treat absolutely everyone with respect because you never know what someone else might be going through. When I was 11, my grandparents actually brought me to Hawaii, and when everyone else fell asleep, my grandma decided to take me out so we could see the ladies of the night. I had no idea what these women actually did until my grandma told me. "See her clothes," she said, "she has a good sense of fashion." Then, my grandmother smiled kindly at each woman as they passed and always offered an uplifting word. She gave several of them money, but I honestly think her kindness meant far more than anything else. Some of those women even seemed surprised. Anyway, we didn't return to our hotel room until my grandma and I had counted 100 women that night. Later, the whole thing seemed hilarious as an adult, but I didn't realize until now that my grandma had actually been teaching me an unforgettable lesson.


It's been over 30 years since this happened. My grandmother passed away over a decade ago, but I still find so much comfort in these memories. Now, when I'm having tough days fighting cancer, I read inspirational cards she placed in her "happiness file." I pulled one out a couple of years ago and wondered how my grandmother must've felt when she wrote it. "Treat everyone with kindness," the card read, "it really does come back around." 

Whenever I walk toward my main oncologist's clinic, I pass a man who helps with insurance claims. He doesn't appear to have a regular office and instead is tucked away in a dark corner. He faces patients who pass by, but his desk is a bit too far away for us to really say hello. I've seen people awkwardly skirt past, and the man also never looks up. Remembering my grandmother's words, a couple of years ago I decided to walk all the way over to this man's desk to try brightening his afternoon. "Have a wonderful day," I beamed. The poor man appeared visibly shaken, mumbling something as he stared at his computer and went back to work. Instead of quitting there, I vowed to do this every time I walked past—both before and after my visit. After months, he began waving back, always seeming surprised no matter how many times I've done this. I never missed a time, always remembering my grandmother's words: Treat Everyone with Kindness.

This week, though, something changed. I grew so sad, unable to remain happy despite my circumstances. I spent most of the week at the cancer center, growing more and more exhausted. It's just that this whole journey can sometimes feel endless. Anyway, after I left the clinic, preparing to pass the man in the corner, I decided not to say hello. What was the point in always saying hi anyway? He probably didn't even like it. I couldn't stomach this journey anymore. What was the point of anything?

But just as I was about to round the corner without acknowledging him, the man yelled out, "You didn't say hello! So... Hello!" Then he smiled brightly, waving to me with so much animation that a humongous laugh built up inside of me, and I couldn't hold it in anymore. We just smiled at each other so widely. And I'm not quite sure why, but his kindness made my eyes well with tears. That man changed the climate of my entire day, and suddenly my journey felt surmountable again.

It's so funny thinking about my grandma and the lessons she imparted even on the Waikiki strip. Maybe she was right after all.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Keep Looking for the Good, Especially Here

Have you heard of Chinese water torture? An Italian/Chinese psychologist first wrote about this in the 15th century, explaining how a dripping machine would erratically send very cold water onto subjects’ scalps and foreheads over an extended period of time. After a while, those being tortured would mentally deteriorate so fearful of the next drop. This is often how cancer feels. 

I’m currently writing from Utah, missing my family in Idaho because I’ll spend the next few days near the cancer center in another state. I undergo brain imaging every six weeks and get cancer treatments every month. This week I’ll also get a bone infusion—which (to me) is almost as bad as radiation. But what hurts more than anything is time away from my husband and kids. 

Today, before a 60-minute MRI to monitor a certain brain mass (as well as necrosis), I shook on the MRI table. “It’s all begun to feel like too much,” I whispered, but I don’t think the tech heard me. He’d just seen how I quivered like debris at the end of an especially harrowing storm.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I used to be brave,” I said. “Before all of this… Before terminal cancer I was different.” But on days like today, it feels like too much. Unless people have been through it themselves, they don’t fully understand. And sometimes, as the person undergoing treatments, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes the bad times better.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” He looked at me with such kindness. “You’re worried because you’re claustrophobic?”

That wasn’t all of it, but… “Yes. I’m claustrophobic.” 

“Over half of the people who come in here are claustrophobic.”

“Are you?” I asked. “You’ve had an MRI?”

“I went in a machine once for training. The tube pushed my arms into my sides, and I hated the mirror on the face cage. You’ve had brain MRIs before, so you know that mirror I’m talking about?”

“Yes. The mirror is the worst!”

“I would’ve preferred just looking at the tube’s ceiling!” he said, and we both broke out laughing. 

Despite previous fears, I’d stopped shaking. It just felt nice being validated by someone who understood. “Can you do me a big favor?” I asked, and the young man quickly agreed. “An hour in that tiny tunnel is a long time. Can you tell me something you’ve learned from working with cancer patients—something I can think about in the machine?” I’ve gotten so philosophical that all I seem to do is think. 

I hate admitting how being alone with my thoughts—especially in MRIs—has become laborious. Or how I’ve talked with several counselors about mortality but even that has become my own brand of Chinese water torture.

“I just finished school. I’m officially a magnetic resonance imaging technologist!” the man gushed, prying me from my thoughts. “I’ve learned so much from cancer patients that now I just want to help them. These MRIs save lives, and now I’m helping save lives too.”

I couldn’t help smiling.

“I think most of us want a chance to help other people. This is my way of doing that.”

“Congratulations. That is so incredible!”

And when I went into the machine and after, I thought about Joel’s words and how he just wants to help people. I guess that really is the gist of what most people want to do with their lives... Simply help.

So, as I prepare for two more days at the cancer center in Utah, it seems a little bit less grueling. I’ve felt myself smiling broadly at strangers in the elevator, and I’ve even started up cheerful conversations with everyone unfortunate enough to cross my path.

Sure my cancer journey might feel like Chinese water torture at times, but “hell” could actually be heaven if you just escaped from the desert. So, it’s all perspective again, and I just need to keep looking for the good, especially here.