My Week with a Chemotherapy Patient
[This story was originally written for SevenPonds and may not be reused without permission.]
I was introduced to Janet* through a friend. The relationship was intended to be professional – she was looking for help around the house for a week after a chemotherapy treatment, and I was looking for any work that would come my way. She is impossible to know and not care for, though, I realized upon our first meeting.
I met her along with her daughter at her house – unlike any job interview I’ve ever had, for a job unlike any I’ve ever done. They explained the duties to me. They would be simple: light housecleaning, dishes, cooking meals, walking the dog, a little bit of driving. This was her third chemotherapy treatment, she said.
“I’ve got just one more after this,” Janet said, “and we’ve got some friends who can help out for the last one.”
“Well,” her daughter was quick to correct, “The doctor said it would be four to six treatments, maybe more, depending on how they work. So we may have more in the future,” she explained to me.
“I would be happy to help out in the future, if it’s needed,” I replied.
“We’re hoping it’s just these four,” Janet said boldly. “I’m not sure I can do more than that.” She let out a short chuckle, so I smiled.
She was a very slight woman, about a head shorter than me, thin, her face wrinkled with her seventy years of age. She had the tan and the warm smile of a woman who had lived in Berkeley for over thirty years, and she sat comfortably on the couch with her knees pulled loosely into her chest, like a teenage girl. She looked healthy when I met her; I didn’t see anything to indicate that she was battling cancer. She still had all of her natural hair, and that was the only sure sign I had ever learned to look for.
Work started a week after our first meeting. I had to be at Janet’s house by eight a.m. each day, a pretty tall order for the otherwise unemployed. Every day began with the same routine: walk the dog for forty-five minutes, prepare his surprisingly particular breakfast, wash his dishes, make breakfast for Janet. Two soft-boiled eggs, one piece of buttered toast, a cup of herbal tea to support digestion. Salt for the eggs and agave in the tea. On the second day I forgot the agave, but she didn’t say anything about it, until I did it again at lunch. I didn’t forget it after that.
The days were just as simple as that. Breakfast was my busiest time of the day. After that, Janet slept much of the morning, I washed dishes, tidied whatever needed it, and spent my down time on my own writing work. Janet was a very undemanding patient; she did as much for herself as she could, and she didn’t need much throughout the day because she was usually just resting.
The chemotherapy simply wore her out; it was tiring for her to be on her feet for too long, which is why she needed a helper. After a few days, it also made her nauseous, and none of the medicine she was taking – prescriptions, injections, marijuana, herbal teas – seemed to be able to make that go away. I think she hated eating some of the time because of the nausea. It was heartbreaking to see how unpleasant some foods could be for her, but I was proud to see that she was always willing to try.
Throughout the week, I was able to do a bunch of things for the first time in my life. Janet was the first cancer patient I had ever met. This was the first time I had ever done any kind of residential work professionally. I had never walked a dog on my own before. On Thursday, I made her a soup from scratch – all week, I feared this task, because I didn’t want to make her something awful, and I had no idea if I would be able to do it well. It turned out good, I think, and it provided her with meals for the next two or three nights.
When she was describing the work to me during our first meeting, I began to wonder if I should accept the work. It was easy, for sure, but way outside of my comfort zone, a job and a lifestyle that I was totally unfamiliar with. I took it, in part, because I needed to make a little money after two months of unemployment; but, more, because she was a friend of a friend who needed help, and because she was really, really nice. The week offered me a chance for all of these new experiences, a reminder that I can survive outside of my comfort zone, and little lessons along the way.
If she had needed it, I would have done the work for free. I was blown away by the wage she offered, and at the end of the week, she paid me more than I asked for. I was compelled to make her week comfortable and pleasant, because she didn’t deserve to feel sick and worn out, and I worried most days that I wasn’t quite able to do that for her.
The greatest lesson I took away from the week came to me on my last day. I drove Janet to the hospital for a hydration treatment, and on the way home, we saw her sister walking across the street.
The greatest lesson I learned from a week after chemotherapy was to live life like I have cancer.
It was rush hour, and we were stopped at a stop sign at a busy intersection in Berkeley. Cars were lined up behind us. Janet waved to her sister and rolled her window down to invite her to stop over to say hello. Oblivious to the traffic behind us, she chatted for a few seconds, until the horn honked from the car behind us.
“I better pull out of the way,” I said quietly, not wanting to break up the sisters, but knowing that staying here was inconsiderate.
“Okay, I’ll talk to you later,” Janet bid farewell to her sister without any added urgency, as if she were perfectly within her right to stop traffic, and the conversation had just ended naturally, and not at the insistence of an annoyed driver behind us.
I pulled forward, relieved to end the situation. But, I also felt like staying there, turning to the driver behind us, and shouting, “Excuse me, sir, but this woman has cancer, and she’s talking to her sister. Do you understand how insignificant it is that you’ll get home thirty seconds later?”
Maybe it is inconsiderate to hold up traffic, but in perspective, the short time spent between these sisters trumped the need for rush hour travelers to move forward. It’s just that simple, and I realized that it’s just that simple throughout life, cancer or not. The greatest lesson I learned from a week after chemotherapy was to live life like I have cancer – recognize what’s important and let go of the little stuff.
When we met, Janet said, “I am a nurse.” Given her age, her health, and the stories I learned throughout the week, I gathered that she was retired by now – so, she was a nurse – but, given her personality, I wasn’t surprised that she would still naturally hold the title.
She had been a hospice nurse for years, working for a time in hospice for AIDS patients. I was unsurprised by her resolve to defeat her cancer without suffering more than the least amount of chemo. She had likely seen too much in life to be afraid of a little terminal disease.
*Names changed to protect privacy