I come as one, but I stand as 10,000
On the morning of my first chemotherapy treatment, I got up before dawn. As my family slept, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, pulled up my threadbare Mickey Mouse shirt and stared at my body.
My brown, rounding figure wears my age, my former vices and my lust for carbs. My eyes fell to my right breast, which is now noticeably shorter than the left. I assume that is because the HER2 positive cancer inside has eaten away at spaces and places.
Above my left breast, there is a scar that marks a port buried beneath and just above that, a mark on my neck is where a catheter feeds into a vein. Every three weeks, that will be the path where the drugs will be inserted and prayerfully shrink this disease.
Not knowing what to expect, the movie inside my head began to unfold. Will it hurt when the nurse tries to access my port? Will the chemicals burn as they flow through my veins? Will I immediately become sick and my hair fall to the ground?
The questions got louder and louder like a gnat buzzing in my ear.
I stepped into the shower, turned my back toward the hard, hot stream and let it beat down upon me. I prayed it would wash away the anxiety that was spreading from my brain to my toes.
Once I was dried and dressed, I stilled myself so that I wouldn’t let my family know that inside I wanted to scream. But, I couldn’t get comfortable.
Usually, I am the one who takes our kids to school, but on that balmy Tuesday morning my husband was driving and I had to sit – like an obedient child – in the passenger seat. The plan was to drop them off and head to UAB Kirklin Clinic for my very first infusion.
Now, I have perfected the art of “safely” driving my kids to school through various neighborhoods, eight stop signs and five traffic lights while sipping coffee and eating a biscuit in 10 minutes, flat. (Don’t ask.) But, sitting in that passenger seat, it felt as if my husband was going two miles per hour.
I sat on my hands and pursed my lips to resist the temptation to grab the steering wheel and bark directions. I breathed in and out as we inched through the neighborhoods and tried to focus on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” blaring on the radio. I feared the kids would be late.
Time ticked toward 8 a.m. and we were a few feet away from my usual quick-turn into the schoolyard and then…he…drove…right…past…it.
My head exploded.
I almost jumped out of the car, lifted his four-door, gray Infiniti with my bare hands and flung it into a parking space. Before I could do that, though, he took the other turn into the school and the kids made it in before the bell rang.
Once we dropped them off, however, my husband realized that he had left his cell phone at home. I swallowed the words bubbling in my throat and we crafted a plan for him to drop me off at infusion, grab his device and immediately come back.
That would mean I would have to go into chemo alone.
Moments later, he pulled in front of the Kirklin Clinic, a bone-colored multi-story building with a face of windows. I took the elevator to the second floor and then walked a snail’s pace into my new normal.
I headed into an entryway that had the bold black letters “Infusion Therapy” posted above. On the other side of the door, a warm, dimly lit hallway greeted me. Hardwood floors led a path dotted with paintings of serene settings hanging on the wall, including a striking image of three faceless women, dressed in white gauzy gowns locked in arms with their hair blowing in the wind.
When I turned the corner and looked into the waiting room, it appeared as if most everyone there was bald and frail. It took my breath away. I felt the dam inside me crumbling. I checked in at the front desk, got my wristband and sat in a corner.
I rocked back and forth, trying to soothe myself. But it didn’t help. I felt so alone and burst into tears. I am only 44 years-old. I have two young children who adore me. There are so many unrealized dreams inside me. I didn’t want to be sick.
I dug into my overpacked “chemo” bag looking for some tissues and couldn’t find any. I had snacks and a blanket and mints and books and pens. I thought of how stupid I had been to not anticipate that there might be tears.
My sister’s friend, who works in the oncology lab next door, spotted me while getting some coffee.
“Come here,” she demanded while walking back to her desk.
I jumped up and followed behind the younger woman like a three-year-old trailing their mother. She gave me Kleenex and assured me that everything would be OK.
Not long after that, my husband arrived. We sat in the waiting room and held hands. I spotted a kind-faced older black woman staring at me. She was sitting beside a man in a wheelchair who could barely keep his head up.
When we were both in the infusion area, she walked up to me and asked, “Is this your first time?”
“Yes ma’am,” I whispered.
She grabbed me and hugged me tightly.
“You’re going to be just fine,” she said, and then looked me in my eyes. “You hear me?”
I was too moved to speak. I only nodded and squeezed her back.
The walls of the infusion room are lined with reclining chairs separated by slate blue curtains. In the center of the room sits the bustling nursing station where women scurry back and forth tending to patients who are fighting the battle of their life.
My nurse was a beautiful, southern blonde who had scored me the best seat in the house (a corner lot). She has a slight accent that hinted of Northern Alabama and peppered my day with warm, funny stories to make me smile and a macadamia nut cookie to boot.
Her gentle touch with my port was a relief and the fluids did not burn as they flowed through my veins. As the day progressed, my sky-high blood pressure began to drop from 168/95 to a more normal rate.
All day long people visited me. It was a pleasant surprise.
A woman from the “Angel Squad” shared her journey of cancer with me and told me that getting the disease was the “best thing that happened to her.” Now that she is a survivor, she approaches life with a gratitude and mindfulness that she hadn’t had before. A girlfriend who works at the UAB Cancer Center brought me a yummy lunch. A former coworker showed up with crossword puzzles, peppermints and the story of her fight with cancer. My patient advocate gifted me with a pink bag filled with information about my journey. My parents sat by my side and asked every healthcare provider who walked up to "take care of my baby."
My oncologist, the legendary Dr. Andres Forero-Torres, is a larger-life Colombian who brings joy with him at every meeting. He sang my name when he greeted me, saying, “Hello, Maaaaah-Ree.”
While the drugs were healing my body, these angels were healing my soul.
Sitting in the tan recliner connected to an infusion pump and staring at my feet, I thought of the many, many, many people who have been there for me.
I wasn’t alone.
The weekend before, my girlfriends hosted a slumber party in my honor. They prayed over me, we ate pink-and-green colored chocolate strawberries. And, every single day, they send me a scripture and a word of encouragement. Every. Single. Day. My former coworkers from The Birmingham News treated me to lunch and showered me with well-wishes.
Many people sent gift cards, hand-written notes, shared prayers, prayer shawls (yes, two), a beautiful Tiffany-blue robe with my name of it, bottled water, my favorite ginger Altoids, journals, bath treatments and the list goes on. My uncle Andre in Japan has devoted 100 days of a daily pray walk for me. His mother-in-law, an elderly Japanese woman, made me a beautiful 1,000-piece origami creation. I am told it represents the many prayers going forth on my behalf. My aunt Marie, who also had Stage 3 breast cancer, called me daily and prepared me for the journey. Former co-workers from University Relations gave me a generous gift that took me by surprise and my beloved English department gave me an overflowing basket of healing treats.
How could I be sad when I have this loving community of family members, friends, students, survivors, classmates, sorority sisters, coworkers, sister/friends from South Carolina, Huntsville, Mobile and Texas as well as neighbors from across the street swaddling me? How could I not be joyful at the thought of the symphony of prayers rising up to heaven on my behalf each day?
It made me think of the line from Maya Angelou’s poem “Our Grandmothers.” The words, “I come as one, but I stand as ten thousand” rang in my head.
There were scores of people who were with me on that day, their prayers, their letters, their gifts, their flowers, their kind words. They gave me the strength to stand straighter.
And, if these people love me this much, how much more does my Creator love me? I am blown away.
So, my day of chemo ended with a smile because although I alone had to sit in that infusion chair, I had a world of others who were there cheering me on.
I’m going to be just fine.