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By Sarah M. Glover
(Page 1 of 3)

I sit across the hall from my mother-in-law, Virginia, who is emitting 13.9 millirems of radiation. I have to shout when I speak with her because of the metal barrier that separates us. Garbage litters her hospital room where she has remained in isolation for the past 14 days, as nothing and no one can pass within 10 feet of her without becoming contaminated. The high level of radiation within her body could poison me. The very germs upon my palms could poison her. We are a threat to each other for the first time.

For over three years, Virginia has battled an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She has already undergone chemotherapy, lost her hair and grown it back countless times, endured spinal taps and bone marrow transplants, and railed against the bureaucracy of everyone from the FDA to Congress to receive her current treatment. A note in her chart reads, “A 76-year-old female with the constitution of a much younger woman.” This is an understatement. My mother-in-law is a force of nature who now is entirely at its whim. She is also my friend—an incongruous role in a society where the mother-in-law is usually cast as lead villain.

Behind the metal divide, tiny nuclear bombs of a new experimental drug have detonated inside her, killing the cancer cells; the massive round of chemotherapy she’s received on this protocol has killed nearly everything else. Days from now, she will have few white blood cells left. At this weakest point, when her body has sacrificed all its reinforcements, she will receive her stem cells and they will grow new cells—or they won’t.

The family liaison tells me that the day patients receive their stem cells is dubbed their “new birthday,” and one often sees balloons or party hats amongst the pale skin and bald heads. No flowers, of course. My mother-in-law—this quintessential New Englander—will be unable to touch dirt for one year. Her beloved garden will have to wait for her until next summer.

I return home later that day to the Pete Gross House, or the Cancer Casa, as we have irreverently dubbed it. A residence apartment in downtown Seattle, it houses transplant patients and their families and is near the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, or the “Hutch.” The Hutch is another word in the barrage of cancer lingo I am slowly absorbing. I am a “caregiver,” a person who can drive my mother-in-law to and from the “Hutch”: a person who can change the dressing around her “Hickman,” an intravenous catheter used for the administration of “chemo” and other “meds,” and from where her daily “draw” of blood is taken, a person who makes sure that everything this cancer “victim” touches, from her bathroom vanity to a drinking glass, remains as sterile as possible.

As a caregiver, I am also responsible to provide comfort and companionship. For this, there is no lingo.

The Cancer Casa is sterile, yet homey. I walk down the fourth floor corridor back to our room, feeling the unevenness of new places. This could be any hotel room I’ve visited—the non-descript carpeting, the beige walls. Except almost every door I see bears a personal collage of photographs. They hang there, smiles frozen, reminders of healthier times—encouragement during the frequent comings and goings of the patients and the visitors. I’m uncomfortable looking at them.

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