Twelfth floor of the Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Denver is the infusion room. Large, comfortable floral print chairs recline back against enormous windows that look west, across downtown and out onto the front range of the Rockies. It’s a soothing place – the Kaiser folks have done their job well.
Carly (not her real name) has been here a dozen times before and knows the drill – I’m just here as her chemo buddy for the week. The way she put it, it’s handy to have a spare brain and extra pair of eyes when you’re getting plugged into a couple of pints of chemical mix tailored to poison you as close to death as you can get without quite kicking the bucket.
The infusion itself is a quiet, cheerful event – I look around the broad room and see a dozen or so other patients, each relaxing in their own floral comfy chairs, chatting with friends as if over Sunday tea, or reading quietly. It’s surprisingly undepressing – these are not people going quietly into that good night. They’re getting dosed up with Doxorubicin, Cyclophosphamide and half a dozen other unpronounceable toxins because they’ve decided that living is worth it. In spite of the nausea, the bruising, the hair loss and the countless, countless needles.
The nurses are wonderful. Ashly’s decked out in blue smock, presenting the syringes of Adriamycin to Carly like a sommelier – “May I recommend today’s selection?” And she’s completely tuned into Carly’s wavelength, dialing the level of detail up as it’s clear that Carly wants to know more. Why no Herceptin today? We went over this with the doctor, but Ashly knows too: cumulative risk of heart failure, and they want to save the second round of gene-targeted therapy to bat clean-up in October.
We talk about the crazy, improbably origins of this cocktail – Doxorubicin from microbes isolated in soil around a 13th century Italian castle; Cyclophosphamide derived from mustard gas.
Frank steps in during Ashly’s lunch break – he’s older, faking a gruff Peter Falk attitude before breaking into a goofy grin. “We’re not giving you Benadryl today, so you don’t get to go to dreamland” he apologizes, then looks conspiratorially over at me and whispers. “Perhaps we should put it in your friend’s coffee?”
And then we sit. Carly’s on a mix of anti-nausea premedication, and fortunately, she’s a happy drunk. She wants sushi – she wants to take us all out to sushi. “Oh, oh!” An idea occurs to her: “And I’ll get to wear my good hair to dinner!” She’s brought it along in her handbag, just in case. Welcome to the weird world of cancer.
[Denver friends: sorry, I know I haven’t given you any notice that I was going to be in town – it was kind of last minute, and I’m afraid I mostly have my hands full!]