There is really no such thing as cancer being “over.” At best, there is a focus on staying in healthy remission and an awareness of those who are not faring well.
For some, cancer treatment ends with surgery followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation. For others, there are ongoing drug regimens, each bringing its own benefits and side effects.
Women who’ve had certain types of breast cancer are offered a set of drugs that suppress the hormones that cancer cells would otherwise thrive on. For young women, tamoxifen remains the standard prescription. Older women are now given a class of drugs called aromatase inhibitors (AIs). Each woman responds differently. Some find these drugs unbearable.
I manage the side effects with acupuncture, herbs and cannabadiol oil, as part of a thorough health lifestyle I’ve been writing about on this blog. One side effect I have not been able to control on my own has been the bone loss caused by the AI drug. Fortunately, the medical establishment has a pretty good remedy, a drug called zometa, which is given intravenously twice a year. For me, it’s working to build my bones back up, and that allows me to continue with the AI drug that will help prevent a recurrence.
This past week, I was getting ready to go to the cancer treatment center for my third bi-annual dose of this drug when I got a call from the financial office. They said my insurance would cover it, but the cost for one dose of Zometa is $18,000 and that I would be responsible for paying $2,700 of that. What happens if a woman can’t come up with this “co-payment?” Well, she just doesn’t get this drug, and she can take an inferior drug or just watch her bones fall apart.
A year ago, my out of pocket cost for this drug was $900. Now, under the scam and political farce called “Obamacare,” I will pay three times more for this drug. And yet, it’s working and I need it, and I will just pay. I am furious thinking of others who can’t afford it.
It’s going on three years now that I go frequently to the Comprehensive Cancer Center in downtown Berkeley, and I have a similar feeling each time.
This is no place of sorrow, despite its purpose. This is a place of well-wishing and attention to detail.
In the small parking lot, I am greeted by a valet parking attendant who takes my car and keys. No patient here has to hunt for parking, and that’s a big deal in Berkeley.
At the reception desk, I get a wrist bracelet with my name and date of birth. Then I go sit in the comfortable sky-lit lounge area, waiting for a nurse to come get me. Each time I sit in this room, I am struck by the bay area diversity of who’s here: people of all ages, races, languages, alone or holding the arm of a companion, looking frail or robust, with bald heads, wigs, hats, scarves. The energy in this room feels crystalline: sharp and fragile. I hear the silent sounds of worry and prayer and love.
Each time I sit here, I remember the Five Daily Recollections, a Buddhist practice to train the mind on what is true, and I silently recite:
I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot avoid aging.
I am of the nature to become sick. I cannot avoid illness.
I am of the nature to die. I cannot avoid death.
Everything and everyone I love and cherish will one day vanish.
All that I have are the fruits of my actions.
These thoughts guide me as a nurse takes me and two other patients to an elevator to the center’s new upstairs treatment room. There are too many cancer patients here. They could no longer be accommodated on Floor 1 nor in an auxillary room in the basement.
Up in the new area, I am met by Mary, one of the angel-chemo nurses who has treated me before. It is wonderful to hear her remember me and say how fantastic I look.
Others here look awful and distressed. One is in a wheelchair, sipping hot chocolate, telling a nurse she cannot stand up to be weighed on the scale. Another woman is lying on a bed in her own cozy room, door open. She looks deathly ill now.
Mary seats me in a comfortable reclining chair, and after a few preliminary checks of my vital signs, she inserts an IV in my hand. I’m positioned so I can keep knitting. She starts a drip of a hydrating saline solution into my veins, to be followed by a 15 minute, $18,000 dose of Zometa.
The new treatment room has many windows, and the building gets southern exposure. It’s late morning and the light is blazing. I need to wear sunglasses to see my knitting.
This is no place of sorrow, despite my nervousness. I sat in these chairs many times two years ago, four or five hours at a time, with the rhythmic ca-chunk sound of the machine dripping drugs from clear plastic bags held high on a rack, down into a “port” inserted into my chest.
This day, the center’s social worker, Kathy, comes to visit. While the drug drips, we chat and laugh and the time rolls by. My oncologist is on vacation and I am visited by another of the center’s MD oncologists. She is also a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. She has made sure that acupuncture and herbal medicine are available at this center, along with physical therapy, yoga, qigong, and meditation.
Kathy tells me the new treatment floor is called the Sky Room. That makes sense. This is a place where serious matters are being taken care of very seriously. And yet the energy that pervades this place has a hint of heaven.
Kathy leaves and I am reminded, by the name of the new treatment room and all the mixed up feelings of suffering and comfort that go on here, of another of the Buddha’s teachings. It is both an instruction for meditation and a description of the awareness that develops through long meditation practice.
“Develop a mind that is vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle or harm. Rest in a mind like vast sky.”
Pleasant and unpleasant. Clouds passing, obscuring and then revealing the boundless, luminous sky.
It may seem odd for me to say this, but here, at least now, I can rest my mind in the vast sky that holds everything that arises, and everything that passes away.