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Everyone, and Anyone

February 1, 2016

Photo courtesy of Pei Wei in hopes that they will open up in airport terminals everywhere.

I took a quick trip back East last week, to visit one of my brothers. My visit was longer than anticipated because of a massive storm that blanketed the entire Eastern seaboard. On my eventual flight home, I wound up sitting next to a woman in a face mask. No, not the Mexican wrestler kind (although that would have been fun) and not a religious face covering either. Just the kind you get at the drugstore, to keep you from breathing in germs.

My doctor had suggested that I wear one, and I bought some, when I was going through everything, because cancer treatment annihilates your body’s ability to fight off germs — your bone marrow, which creates among other things, white blood cells and other antibodies, is composed of rapidly dividing cells, the kind that are targeted by chemotherapy, so colds and things are a bigger deal for us. I vaguely remember wearing a mask but I was not as diligent about it as the woman next to me. It made me feel bad about the way I looked, which, in retrospect, is a funny point of view from someone with no hair and no eyelashes or eyebrows and flesh the color of death.

My seat mate had all of her hair. She looked normal except for that certain unholy pallor that I recognized all too well. You would never guess that she had cancer, unless you had been there. Because I have learned, over the years, not to be a complete jerk, I didn’t pipe up with, “Tell me about your cancer,” but instead I smiled and we talked about the weather, and of course she told me all about her cancer.

There’s cancer, and then there’s cancer, and this woman had a rare blood disease that wasn’t easily treatable. She’s been following her doctor around the country for a decade, first at NIH, now at Sloan-Kettering while he does one experimental treatment after another on her, funded by research grant money, keeping her alive and using what he has learned from her to figure out how to keep other patients alive.

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “You know, these studies make a huge difference.” I told her about the study that I was recruited for, but wound up being ineligible for since my cancer was too advanced. My doctor told me that they’d had to discontinue it because the experimental treatment was making patients too sick. I told her about the study, finished just a few months before my diagnosis, in which my own doctor figured out how to cure cancer like mine that, until his research, had been considered terminal. Evidence-based medical research is why cancer survival rates within the past decade have skyrocketed, and why we’re starting to talk about cancer as a chronic illness rather than a mortal one.

Then she pulled out her dinner, with profuse apology. She had picked up Chinese food at the counter by the gate, and brought it with her. She knew, as well as I do, how people feel about food with strong flavors on an airplane.

“Don’t worry about it. You’ve got to eat, and if that is what works for you, then go for it.” I said it, and what’s more, I meant it.

Mostly, I was curious to see how she would eat with a mask on, but she took the mask off to eat and then replaced it. I guess after a decade, she knows how to handle it.

Over the years, I’ve heard and read many people say things like, “Cancer doesn’t define my life,” and “I’m just a regular person, but with an illness that happens to be cancer.”

When I was going through treatment and recovery, I couldn’t do or be that, or even think or say it. I still can’t.

Everyone is different.


This woman was really lovely. I don’t think her illness affected it one way or another. If I hadn’t been down my own road, I would not have even known about hers, and I might have silently judged her for the Chinese food.

Everyone is doing the best they can at any given time.


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One Comment
  1. Judy Shure permalink

    Good one. Thx


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