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What I Learned from Breast Cancer


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.

Inga was the mother of two — older daughter, younger son — just like me, and hers were a couple of years ahead of mine in school. During the summers, when I would leave my kids home alone so I could go get the chemo, she would leave hers home alone so she could give it to me. We would laugh together, musing at the state the house would be in at the end of the day: chores undone, empty pizza boxes open on the counter, the potential of a summer's day squandered in front of the TV. Beneath my laughter, I'd envy the sense of security her children had — their mother heading out in nursing scrubs and sensible shoes, strong and ready to help people suffering from cancer — versus the insecurity my children were dealt, their mother sick with cancer, coming home sicker from treatment. I envied that truth of Inga's life along with all that I admired in her cool competence, her quiet authority, and her deep, calming heart.

Occasionally, I would bring small gifts to Inga: cream for her healing hands, a linzer torte I'd baked. I'd write her notes about what she'd taught me about illness — its sanctity, its otherness, its necessity as a third, urgent presence between life and death.

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