The most sustaining thing for me during cancer and chemo was my connection with people. Many have supported me by their presence, their words, their food, their cards, their gifts, their humor. Sometimes just to have a witness gives me the strength to carry on.
I am scheduled to have my chest port removed in two days. My doctor said the choice about keeping it or removing it “is a personal decision, not a medical one.” So out it comes. I remember when it was installed. I’d been told anesthesia was optional for the procedure and I was hungry that morning so I ate breakfast. Then when I came to the center for the procedure everyone there was horrified that I was going to go through this with only local anesthesia. But, but, you guys are the ones that said it was optional!
I was still in disbelief of my diagnosis, just two weeks out from the surgery that provided the diagnosis. I had Ovarian Cancer, stage 3-C. Before that, only four days post surgery, a resident tossed over her shoulder the words, “Oh, I scheduled you to have a chest port installed before you leave the hospital.” She had the door half closed as she was stepping out, a big smile on her face. I said no. As groggy as I was I wasn’t ready for the rush. Nobody talked to me about this. I was still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I had cancer. Next time she came in I told her “no port.”
I fielded a phone call from my oldest son later that day and told him how upset I was about what just happened. He suggested I ask the doctors “to over-explain” to me. I spoke to my husband and told him what Jesse said. “I need them to over-explain to me what’s going on.” He said something along those lines to the resident and that appointment was cancelled.
The port installation was then scheduled for about ten days later. I ate breakfast. The staff was horrified. With local anesthetic only I was opened up, cut, stitched, installed, closed, more stitching. I cried through the whole thing. One nurse came over to my head and stroked my hair. I still had hair! She said, “It’s everything, isn’t it?” I had a moment of communion with her. A moment of pure witnessing and support.
Back to having a witness. It’s what I do for a living. I’m a witness. I’m an art therapist and I work with people struggling emotionally or physically, helping them to make art. Since my own diagnosis about 9 months ago I have come to an even greater appreciation of the necessity to have a witness. It’s hard to explain the experience of being present with someone in pain or confusion or need. The gift is equal whether I am the person in need or the person sitting beside her/him.