The world of cancer is a parallel universe. It exists all around us. Rides with us on elevators. Parks next to us at the mall.
It goes, however, mostly unnoticed.
Until it becomes yours.
A cancer diagnosis unlocks the door to this quiet, serious, sanitary world. It’s the place people go to live and die with cancer. Rooms filled with faces. So many faces.
You can pick out the patients. They have a certain aura. They don’t talk much, but you can make them laugh. They’re good company, except when they stare off into space.
The ones you don’t notice are the caregivers, God bless them.
They’re the ones filling out insurance forms, juggling medical bills, shuffling paperwork, chauffeuring, doing research, asking questions, making appointments, picking up prescriptions, returning calls, making choices, worrying.
It’s their job to worry. Somebody has to. Somebody has to read all the bad stuff on the Web. Somebody has to wonder what life would be like without you. Somebody has to explain it to the kids. Somebody has to imagine the unimaginable.
Mostly, they’re overwhelmed.
But they can’t show it.
Or talk about it.
I can’t say enough about the caregivers. They’re an amazing breed.
One thing I’ve seen on this unexpected journey is the need for family and friends. They’re vital, but they’re also vulnerable.
Far from the center of attention, their needs go unnoticed. Nerves. Nausea. Nightmares. Suffering. Silently.
For the patient, the curse of cancer comes with the blessing of an inner resolve. It kicks in right after you get the bad news. It comes over you like a notion. Something you didn’t understand before suddenly seems clear.
Caregivers, however, are not so blessed.
From the moment of diagnosis, their world collapses into the black hole of cancer. Nothing else matters. Everything must be done. Immediately. By them.
Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t come with extra batteries.
While the patient sleepwalks through the netherworld of life and death, the caregiver takes out the trash, pays the exterminator, checks the homework, feeds the dog and, oh, yeah, works a full-time job, part time.
This level of concern comes at a cost — exhaustion — mentally, physically, spiritually.
You see it when they’re alone. The mask slips a little. The pain appears. Fear fights frustration. Shoulders slump.
They are the walking wounded among us. The ones who could use a hug, a smile, a cup of hot chocolate.
Calendar of life
This other universe is right under our nose. Just take the next exit down reality’s frontage road.
All those new buildings in the suburbs? Doctor’s offices. Surgical centers. High-tech diagnostics. Some places find cancer. Some places fix it. Some just do what they can.
Inside, the rooms are filled. People are waiting, all making red Xs on the calendar of life.
Everybody has one on their fridge. Whether it’s a schedule for chemo, radiation or months between blood tests, this universe revolves around the days before and after. Before this treatment. After that treatment.
One X closer. One X farther away.
We do it to mark time.
A word with new meaning.
Next week: Second thoughts.