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    What I Learned from Breast Cancer


    My little game involved finding this same slightly askew triangle in the patterns that adorned Inga's clothing, in the vee of her nursing smock, in the turquoise stones of her bracelet, in the spaces created on her feet by the crisscrosses of her sturdy shoes. I don't know if she knew she had a triangular theme going, or if it was some deep unconscious reiteration of what she saw when she looked in the mirror each morning getting ready for her hard day's work as head nurse in the chemotherapy suite. For me, scrutinizing Inga and her chin and her crazy triangular patterning became a ritual. The triangles kept recurring — in her cheekbones and her barrettes and the creases of her eyelids — and finding them never failed to bring me a surprising measure of comfort.

    I've been in and out of the chemotherapy suite for nearly 13 years now. Besides the nurses and the aides and the volunteer coffee ladies, I'm the rare person who continues to call the chemo suite my home away from home. Thirteen years in and out of those antiseptic doors, rounds and rounds of drugs whose lists of side effects take the nurses 15 minutes to recite: nausea, vomiting, hair loss, headache, diarrhea, fever, chills, bruising, achy bones, itchy skin, toe fungus, shortness of breath, blurred vision, compromised motor control, loss of appetite, not to mention the swift and premature departure of any sense of personal well-being or peace of mind. And that's supposed to be the good news, the things that happen when the chemo is working.

    But Inga, always Inga, made it better. Each Thursday she reserved my favorite bed by the window with the view of the gray parking ramp and the grayer Iowa skies. She padded into and out of the room quietly. She spoke in a soothing whisper, and only when necessary. Inga didn't laugh at me the time I brought in a stack of bills to pay during chemo. And she didn't bat an eye when I couldn't even hold the pen between my fingers when signing the first check and she was left to gather the tumbled bills at my bedside. She didn't panic — as her colleagues did — the time the tubing unhinged from the IV pump while I was asleep, and blood and chemo fluid flooded the floor.

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