Angels in Cancerland


The large white wicker basket lined with red and white gingham fabric sits next to the red plastic garbage can that is labeled, “biohazard.” The basket is filled with blankets. The garbage pail is filled with remnants of poison. The kind of poison that kills cancer cells but heals patients.
Welcome to the chemo center, where bald women and men filter in, take their place on recliners and hookup. No, not with each other. Although I believe that might happen here.

The nurses, smiling but serious, clean ports and dispense drugs that could take the finish off a table. Some patients knit, some read books or magazines. Others doze.

My husband and I sit in recliners. The room is full of them, lined beneath windows.

One of the nurses, wearing her trademark smock covered with pins of all kinds of angels – plastic ones, gold ones, some with halos, some simple – sees Nick and I and immediately comes over to get her hug. We call her the hug lady. She is the heartbeat of chemoland. She keeps patients and nurses upbeat, energetically moving from patient to patient, handing out suckers, blankets and comforting words.

As we wait for the nurse to clean Nick’s port and give him what we call his “attitude adjustment,” I watch a nurse hook up a girl who appears to be in her early thirties. I don’t mean to eavesdrop, or maybe I do. I hear her say this is her second bout with cancer. Her daughters are ages four and two.

Another man rests a couple of seats away. This is his last treatment. Nine months, two weeks and three days. Not that he counted. Leukemia. I ask him if he is going to celebrate. “I celebrate every day,” he says.

The message is beginning to sink in. Life isn’t waiting for a celebration. Life is a celebration.

I am surrounded by group of people who are fighters. Behind fragile facades, under baseball caps, creatively tied scarves and among the glow of baldheads, I feel iron wills. Some are supported by canes, some by relatives. Some come with spouses, children, friends. Others brave the journey into chemoland alone. Some talk cancer. “What kind do you have?” Others talk about anything but sickness.
Recently, I learned how to hold my crochet hook in a better position. I watched as an older lady, IV hooked up and chemicals dripping into her body, crochet so fast I could have sworn she was powered by electricity. She seemed to be in a hurry to finish a bedspread for her daughter and son-in-law. “It will take a year,” she said. “Then I am going to make another one when I am finished with this one.”

We said not a word about cancer.

My husband looks away as the nurse pushes saline through the port to make sure it is clear. Don’t want a chemical spill here. She pushes the anti-nausea drug into the IV. He asks me to fetch him a drink. He is not sure if he wants it because of thirst, nerves or the possibility it will help him not taste the chemicals that are beginning to drive through his veins. I walk to the mini-fridge, move the cans of apple and orange juices and grab a cola. While handing Nick his drink, I hear a woman say she is cold. I ask if she needs a blanket. “No thanks, my husband is getting me one.”

I look at a piece of paper Nick was given when he came in. It had all sorts of graphs and numbers and initials. I try to digest what it means, but anything other than WBC, or in laymen’s terms, white blood count, I am lost. It is like trying to figure out what initials on vanity plates stand for.

The nurse brings Nick’s drugs from the pharmacy. A syringe full of 5FU. The nurse asks Nick his birthday. We both look at Nick’s picture on the label. We check the dosage. Twelve-hundred milligrams. Some patients don’t pay attention to this part of the regimen, assuming mistakes are not made. But after having a friend nearly die from being given the wrong drug, we feel prevention is better than a bad reaction and double-check everything ourselves.

Nick’s nurse has on latex gloves. Another nurse, hooking up a patient a few seats over, has on thick rubber gloves. She’s administering the foreboding-looking “red devil,” a deep dark drug that we are told by a nurse is “one nasty drug” to a woman who barely gives the nurse a glance.

A man and woman walk by each other. “How are you doing?” they both ask, smiling as big as a crescent moon. “Last one,” the man says as he passes. “Keep the faith,” he adds. And we will, I say to myself after overhearing his comment. Because when you are in chemoland sometimes faith is the best thing you have


Third in a series of essays on my husband’s colon cancer, that were published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Nick was cured of stage 3 colon cancer.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Brenda Schmidtb says:

    Been there done that and seen it all. One day I went into another room and just let go and cried nurse came in we talked I was angry because I thought my husband was breaking his promise to me to stay alive. He had stage 4 colon cancer. With the people you form a bond young and old

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Susan DeBow says:

      I know you have, Brenda. Similar roads … different turns. People who have experienced these things, know. Thank you for writing.


  2. Judy says:

    Were you at Jewish hospital? Sounded like the chemo suite there. Red poison–Adriamycin. I’ve had it during both regimens of chemo. Can’t have it a third time. It causes heart damage which I may have but I’m still alive. Nurses–the unsung heroes of this world. My oldest recently won just such an award. She’s been a nurse for 28 yrs with the last 19 in colo/rectal cancers mainly. I’m so glad Nick has won that battle.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Susan DeBow says:

    No, We weren’t at Jewish. We were at a chemo center off of Reed Hartmann. I would imagine that many of the chemo centers have a very similar group of wonderful people/angels, working there. Talk about changing a person’s life. I and glad the red devil has kept you going, Judy. To a good life!


  4. Judy says:

    My daughter may have had contact with you as that is where her office was. But because of the privacy issues, she would never tell me, nor would I ask. Some offices are better than others and I’m amazed at the difference in care from docs and nurses. Reed Hartman is good.


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