For The Someday Book

A Chemo Story of Connection

Posted on: August 24, 2016

Today counts as Day 10 in the 21-day chemo cycle. Day 1 is infusion day, and it proceeds from there. It’s been a long 10 days. The short version is: I was really, really tired and loopy for days 1-4. It was foggy, but I could function. Chemo was going fine. And then suddenly it wasn’t. One of the side effects overcame me, and days 5-8 were really bad. I could barely get out of bed, and I had to leave in the middle of worship because I thought I might pass out. Days 9-10 have so far showed signs of improvement, and I’m feeling more like myself again. For the next round, we should be able to anticipate and head off the side effect, so things don’t get so bad.

There is a lot more to say about all the things that happened in those days, but I write to process my thoughts and feelings. That means looking smaller, breaking things down, capturing fleeting moments that somehow speak to something bigger. I tried writing about all of it, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t care to keep a log–I write to go deeper. That means all I can capture today is one small part of the story, one moment from  Day 1. I am hoping, as I improve, to share some more moments along the way. It’s important to me to have this space, because I want witness. I want a witness, a written account of all that I am going through so that I can remember it. And I want witnesses, people who will hear the story and carry it with me.

So here’s just a bit of the story. There are more stories to come. Harder ones. But this is the one that I found myself ready to write tonight.

On my first chemo morning, I went to the office. Not the doctor’s office, but my office, the church office. I figured I should work while I still felt well, and I needed something to occupy my mind while I waited for my 12:45 appointment. I blasted through a pile of e-mails and thank-you notes, assuaging my guilt at the slow response time likely in my post-chemo days. When the time came, I took the quick walk to the MacMillan Cancer Centre.

It’s hard to describe how I felt walking in. Scared, of course–but not frightened of what might happen, or dreading the worst. Just anxious to find out what these drugs would actually do to me, how terrible I might feel, how hard this journey will be. At the same time, I was also relieved, and even a little bit excited to finally get started.  Those killer cancer cells have been allowed to grow freely inside of me for too long, and I was ready to put a stop to them. I can’t get well until I get sick. A starting date gives me an ending date, a calendar and to-do list and countdown for the next 18 weeks. I’ve known about the cancer for nearly two months, and this was the first treatment or procedure that was actually going to fight it. At last, we’re taking steps to get me better, even if those steps will make me worse.

That’s the brave attitude I tried to keep and show when I arrived, checked in, and sat down to have my IV cannula put in. My facade was crumbling fast, though.

First of all, I didn’t expect them to go searching for a vein in the top of my forearm. Who looks for veins there? I usually have good, easy-to-find veins, but I also have been savoring a nice summer tan–making them quite invisible to the nurse’s assistant trying to locate one. She brought over a wastebasket filled with a bag of warm water, and had me soak my whole arm in it for 10 minutes. It was a little bit like memories of sleepovers, where you put someone’s hand in warm water because it supposedly makes them have to pee. It didn’t make me have to pee, but it did make my vein pop out so she could find it.


Me & my cannula

Second, the only way I can handle IV needles and blood draws is by pretending they aren’t happening. Before I learned this strategy, I would routinely pass out and/or vomit at the prospect. Now that I am older and wiser, I am cool as a cucumber–once I tell the person doing their job that I’m going to close my eyes, and that they need to talk to me anything that’s not happening to me right now. The poking and thumping and talk of finding veins made that hard to accomplish.

Thankfully, the nurse was gracious and we easily switched to a new topic. Usually, my “pretend I’m somewhere else, chatting with a new friend” strategy yields some lovely connections, as I ask after people’s kids, hobbies, television habits, vacations and sports loyalties. The conversation with my IV cannula nurse started out in a very typical London style: “So, your accent isn’t British. Where are you from?” (London is such an international city, it always seems there are more foreigners than Brits.) I can’t even remember who started it. It turns out she is from Iran, and has only been in the country for seven months. At six weeks, I was still the newer immigrant. She shared that she had traveled all over the world–Europe, Africa, Asia and even Canada and Mexico. “Not the United States?” I started, then realized: “Oh, it must be hard to get a visa on an Iranian passport.” Yes, of course. “And it would be just as hard to get a visa to visit Iran on a U.S. passport.” We talked about the various sites we wished we could see in one another’s home countries. I want to see ancient civilizations, she wants to see natural wonders. “Here we are,” she said, “just two ordinary people, talking and sharing just fine. Only the governments want us to be angry with each other.”

Amen. A beautiful moment of connection. A bond of peace across countries usually known for their mutual hostility.

But it was more than that. Something shifted for me in that conversation. This wasn’t just small talk to get me through the needle moment. This was God showing up for me, in the hands and voice of a Muslim immigrant. She reminded me why I’m here–to help God’s love bring people together. I am here (not just in London, but on the earth), by the grace of God, to open myself to moments of connection like this one, where we discover the love of God binds us, in spite of the barriers the world erects between us. I am here to witness moments like this one and share them with others, so that God’s love grows more real and tangible among us and in the world. That’s my ministry calling. I’ve served in many settings and done many tasks of leadership and ministry, but time and again I discover that this is my true work: naming the ways God’s love is at work in our midst, and helping people work through human differences by the power of those stories and God’s grace.

It’s that calling that has been providing me courage and strength in the cancer journey. I never had confidence that God would preserve my life. The doctors tell me they can, and I believe them, but I do not profess that God is keeping me protected. I’m not special. As a pastor, I have buried too many good people who died too soon to abide by the theology that God chooses favorites. My work keeps me close to the constant reality that I could be next. Faith provides instead the assurance that God will not leave me, no matter what; that resurrection is real and death is not the end; and that God can redeem anything, even cancer, even the cross.

My prayer life has also provided this confidence: God will preserve my call. God may or may not preserve my life, but the Spirit has convinced and convicted me that there is work ahead for me here in London–that same work of finding and naming God’s love that unites us all. It’s the work that my Iranian nurse did with me, in naming our common humanity. Her words of connection took me out of the fearful place and back into the faithful place–the one that knows God is with me, no matter what, and all I need to do is face forward and follow God’s call. 

Though she is only a nurse’s aide here, my cannula nurse was trained as a highly skilled nurse supervisor in Iran. Once her English skills improve enough to pass the language test, her credentials will transfer. Her English seemed excellent to me, but I promised to pray for her as she studies and prepares. I hope to see her when I return for my next treatment, and maybe ask if she wants an English conversation partner to help her get ready.





13 Responses to "A Chemo Story of Connection"

Love you, my daughter. The throwing up with needles was inherited from Me…Sorry. I do not do that anymore. Hopefully, it will be better for you as well. Loving you form over the Atlantic

It is a gift and an honor to be witness to the powerful continuation of your call and ministry. Your faith and life have and continue to point others to the sacred and unwavering presence of God. I hold you in the deepest holy place of my heart as I pray for you without ceasing.

Love and hugs and sit loose in the saddle. Tell the guys hello for me.

When I read this I hear a voice and narrative that reminds me of one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott. I know you know her work and I think that one day your memories will make for a very meaningful and deeply personal – but also touching and funny – memoire about this time in your life.

Prayers and positive energy coming your way.

We love you, and cherish your spirit.

So. Sorry you are going through this but your words are wonderful and will inspire others who read them. K. McWaters

I love this story and your ability to find the good in a really crummy situation. Take care!

I am so proud to have you as my big sister! You are wonderful! ❤

Hang in there. We are praying for you. Charlie and Sandy Smith sa

Thank you, Jennifer. This is a gift. You are a gift.

Thank you so much for writing. Love reading your insights on your journey of faith. I hate needles, too and do just what you do to cope. Much love and healing sent your way!

Yours is a sacred, holy journey. What a blessing in the midst of the labor in this new space, this transition, that God, is birthing new insights, wisdom and strength within. Praying daily for you.
Much love and God bless you with a deep peace.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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