By Sarah M. Glover
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.