Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How To Be A Support Ho

So they have these free drop-in cancer support group meetings at my hospital. The social services department holds them in a conference room on Tuesday mornings during oncology clinic hours. Tuesday mornings are the only time they have an oncology clinic, so the odds are pretty good a sizable number of cancer patients will be there anyway, waiting for their appointments. And since there's usually about a four hour wait to see one of the residents at the oncology clinic, there should be plenty of time to drop in on the cancer support group.

But I noticed that whenever they announced the support group over the PA, none of the cancer patients leapt up to attend. I wondered why.

Now for some reason the oncology clinic shares a waiting room with the medicine clinic. I mean, why not with the orthopedic clinic, or obstetrics, or ophthalmology? The medicine clinic is where sick people go when they're being treated for the flu. Or bronchitis. Or strep throat. So most of the medicine clinic patients are infectiously coughing and horking and sneezing, and most of the cancer patients have compromised immune systems. And we're forced to sit together quite intimately in this huge funky crowded waiting room for four excruciatingly long hours. You would think this setup would be an excellent incentive to drive the cancer patients out of the waiting room and into the conference room, wouldn't you?

Well it's sure as hell what pushed me over the edge. One Tuesday morning early on in my treatment, my designated driver had gone to eat breakfast at the gas station across the street (don't ask) and a woman with a whooping cough sat down beside me. Not ten seconds later I found myself pulling up a chair around the table in Conference Room 1, where I joined two supportive social workers and three decidedly non-huggy-huggy touchy-feely looking fellow suportees. Nobody was coughing, so I decided to stay.

Apparently we were going around the table introducing ourselves when I arrived. Supportee #1 was an aggressive beefy red-faced man in his early fifties with a head full of thick gray hair that was obviously, in several of its rather unfortunate dermatologic details, not a wig. He was hooked up to a large rolling oxygen tank. It turned out he didn't actually have cancer; he was recovering from a recent heart surgery. But he was bored with the cardiology waiting room, which like the rest of this massively underfunded public charity Hospital For The Indigent Damned isn't graced by a single magazine except on the rare occasion when a generous Junior League lady drops by and donates her back issues of Town & Country or Polo Digest. And since his father had died of cancer 20 years ago, he figured he was entitled to a little cancer support. Let's call this guy Larry.

Supportee #2 was a gaunt, bald man with dark hollow eyes and waxy yellowish skin who appeared to be in his late fifties. He was wearing a strange black box-like device around his neck. He informed us in an emotionless drone that he was being treated for inoperable lung cancer, and that his progress, so far, had been good. Bravo! Go team! Rah rah! Let's call this one, oh, let's see, how about Curly.

Supportee #3, whom I'm afraid we have no choice now except to call Mo, was just beginning to tell us that she herself had never had cancer but she thought maybe an aunt on her maternal side once had, when Larry interrupted.

"What the hell is that box thing you've got on?" he asked, pointing to Curly.

Oh shit. Bad move, Larry. Thanks to you, we spent the next 45 years listening to Curly's droning testimony to his wife's new pyramidal business scheme hawking Wearable Personal Mini Air Purifiers.

This fetching model does not resemble Curly or his wife.

The manufacturer claims that these unattractive portable devices use a "negative corona discharge" to set up a "powerful, electrodynamically driven airflow" thereby "drawing pollutants into it and ejecting purified air at a velocity of about 100 ft/min," which is of course achieved by using "the latest microchip technology" to "help its wearer breathe cleaner air despite air tainted with allergens, germs, and chemicals."

Curly's somnific drone would have been conducive to a nice nap, if the damn supportive social workers hadn't kept interjecting loud and urgent disclaimers that these devices were NOT supported or supplied by the hospital, and that anyone interested in further information should speak directly to Curly's WIFE, who was presently milling around the waiting room pitching her woo to a helplessly captive audience.

And then, about eighty years later, probably the day before my designated resident's retirement party, it was finally my turn to introduce myself. What say we call me Emil Sitka.

I told the group my name, diagnosis, and treatment protocol. Then I turned to the supportive social worker and told her I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the department of social services from the bottom of whatever's left of my chemotherapy-ravaged heart. Just the week before, they had helped me obtain a scholarship for eight treatments of free Neulasta, which would otherwise run me about $4,000 cash per shot and which were necessary to prevent me from shuffling off this mortal coil due to a hang nail.

"Four thousand dollars?" exclaimed Larry. "Times eight? Hell, you'd be better off dead." Hey! Way to be supportive, Lar! Curly just shook his head and silently passed me his wife's business card. And then, thank the many unnamed galaxies, my assigned resident-du-jour (by now probably sporting a long white beard) paged me into exam room 24B. I grabbed my wig and fled.

So now I know that the real cancer support groups are impromptu little chance meetings in the waiting room. I've learned how to pick a fellow cancer patient out of a crowd of thousands. The lymphedema, the black fingernails, the bangs hanging over one ear while crooked sideburns grace the forehead. Our eyes meet across the crowded room and not ten seconds later we are locked in conspiracy, showing each other our ports and comparing hemoglobin counts. Soon a few others join us.

"I was diagnosed last May, but they haven't started treatment yet because I have a low MUGA score," says Suzanne. "I had a platelet transplant last week and I've felt lousy ever since," says Deborah. "I'm getting my scan results today, and I'm scared to death," says Mary. "I went through 27 weekly chemo sessions and the radiation burned me to a crisp, but look! My hair's finally growing back!" says Beth.

"They have fresh Dove Bars in the radiology vending machine," says Jason.

And like a huge supportive safety net, we pool our quarters and follow him over there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

when I read this entrie's title it came out 'how to be a support hose' and then the image of your head with a support hose laden mane or some other medusa'ish fashioned hat item on top.

support groups are teh fun. erg...

3:47 PM  
Blogger Finnegan said...

No Victor Mancini? No Marla Singer? No Bob? Hmm, perhaps someone has skewed my idea of support groups...

4:21 PM  
Blogger Lymphopo said...

You've led a sheltered life, dear. But if you don't like Mo Larry and Curly, you can always go to any of the 8 million religious cancer support groups around here. "This week's topic is, Leanin' on the Lord to Lead You through the Valley of the Shadow of Doxorubicin." If that doesn't make you choke, I don't know what will.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Rose said...

Leanin on the Lord ...

If I hadn't lived and worked in Louisiana, I'd think you were making that up!

6:49 AM  
Blogger Alto2 said...

Dove Bars are better than dorks anyday. Blog friends and acquaintances are better than dorks, too. Kudos on winning that grant for Neulasta -- anything that supports your immune system during cold and flu season is worth it.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew they had barbecue in gas stations in the south, but I didn't know about breakfast.

3:09 AM  
Blogger Lymphopo said...

Whenever people around here start talking about where to get the best boudin, the best cracklins, the best andouille, the best deep fried pig penises, which eventually they always do, they inevitably start naming gas stations and remote truck stops. But if I start asking about where to get the best baked goat cheese on locally grown organic baby arrugula, they stare at me speechless. Come on, people. Isn't there a Conoco or a Chevron or a Cheapo Depot gas station somewhere around here that serves real food?

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, my.

Do you remember when you started on this journey and were worried about being some kind of cultural appropriator because you weren't quite sure what you had or what you were going to do about it but were hangin' with the cancer peeps while you went through what you had to go through to found out? Do you feel better about all that now? I hope so.

Shit. I can't believe the hospital allows this, especially the flogging of the personal air purifiers.

Oh, wait. Yes I can.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Jeanne said...

Hi--just wrote you a comment which was deleted in the authentication process. I'll try again here as a test. I'd like to link to your blog from mine, we seem to be in similar situations and to have a similar take on the absurdities of cancer treatment.

The Assertive Cancer Patient

7:37 PM  
Blogger Lymphopo said...

Blogger has been wack with comments all day. I love your blog, go ahead and link away!

8:38 PM  
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Such a very useful article. Thanks for sharing.TMC Online Opinion | Cancer Treatment

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