Published September 16, 2007
LOS ANGELES – I spent half the day yesterday in the chemo room with my friend, who is beginning a new round.
It was day one, and my first time in this particular chemo room. If you've never been in such a place, based on my experience in three different ones over the years, they're all pretty much the same. Big comfortable chairs. People of all ages. Magazines, books, reading material (one I went to even had little TV's, like the gym).
And IV stands and plastic bags dripping medicine everywhere.
I'm lucky, knock on wood. I've never been the one in the chair. I sit on a stool, or an empty chair, and chit chat. I tell stories, jokes, get water, open snacks, kill time, as it were. I was a talk radio host for years, so I'm pretty good at it. I have an endless supply of funny stories, most of them at my expense, and as a lawyer and born troublemaker, a fair amount of experience fighting insurance companies, which is one of the most common topics.
The last thing people who are sick should have to do is spend time and energy fighting insurance companies, but the reality is, almost everyone does.
You aren't a Republican or Democrat in the chemo room. People don't talk about hating the opposition, they don't scream and yell about who's right or who's wrong, the way they do in the other worlds I live in. They aren't mean, nasty and competitive. They know better.
This time, when I arrived, the waiting room was full of kids. I think I'm strong, but that always gets to me. It's no place for kids. In the chemo room itself, there were people of all ages, but at least no kids. Maybe they put them in the private rooms, or maybe they were just there with their parents, because it was the Jewish New Year, and some schools were closed. Still, being there with your mom or dad isn't so great either.
It's hard to tell much, looking around the chemo room. Some people look great, and some look not-so-great at all, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. My friend looks fabulous, and she has pancreatic cancer that had spread, which is about as bad a hand as you could be dealt.
If they'd known how bad it was, they never would have operated. If they hadn't operated, she wouldn't be here now. You don't get many invitations to pancreatic cancer benefits, don't see too many survivors going to Capitol Hill demanding more research money, don't read too many books or articles by people telling their tales of fear and triumph, because 95 percent of the people who are dealt her hand die within six months.
My friend was diagnosed well over a year ago. Grateful doesn't begin to describe it.
The other people in the room, of course, beyond patients and friends and family, are the people who work there, the doctors and nurses and assistants who come in every day to explain how things work, hook up the needles, change the bags, tell you when it's time to go and when you need to come back and what other tests they've scheduled for you.
At one level, it's stunningly mundane: watch for constipation, don't go to the dentist, if a friend has a cold talk to them on the phone and not in person. They juggle files and computers and keep track of everyone's schedule, and remind you what's in each bag and tell you to have a nice day.
At another level, it's heroic. I watched the doctor, as she repeatedly touched my friend's arm, looked her in the eye, reassured her about the side effects, wasn't afraid to make a human connection. I watched the head nurse, who spends every minute of every day explaining protocols and hooking up patients, as she answered the questions she must have answered a hundred times without a trace of impatience.
The place was packed and no one was in a rush. There were a hundred things to keep track of, but no one was a number.
I did a lot of praying as I sat there. It was, for me, a holy day anyway, but that really wasn't why. I felt like I was in a place of worship, surrounded by God's children, watching people do the Lord's work. I prayed for my friend, and for my sister who is facing cancer for the second time, and for all my friends who carry that particular burden with them everyday.
I prayed for my children, prayed that they would never sit in this room, prayed that by the time they grow up, we will have better ways of treating this terrible disease than putting poison in bags. I prayed that God would keep me well, and that I would remember this day in the coming days, when I feel disappointed and angry and jealous and upset.
I always say that our lives should be our blessings, our prayers. I memorized the words to all the formal prayers when I was a child, and I can say them by rote. But it is living them that is the challenge.
Happy New Year. May it be a healthy and joyous one. May the Lord bless you and keep you, and cause His countenance to shine upon you, and grant you peace. And may we all remember to be kind.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.