At the beginning of any new journey, maybe it’s starting with a new company, going back to college, or signing up for fitness classes at the local gym, it seems that you can easily identify those who are just starting out. Like you, they are the ones who are just learning the ropes of the new system. They don’t know exactly what to do, where to go, or how to get there. Like you, they just look new. Over time, whether intended or not, a bond will form between you and the group of new travelers and you will begin to identify yourselves as a sort of class. Maybe you will become friends with some of the people from your class or maybe you won’t, but the chances are you will always feel a special kinship with those who traveled on your journey with you.
My cancer journey was no different. Practically from the moment of my diagnosis, I began to notice others who had also just begun on their cancer journey. New cancer patients are especially easy to identify: they are the ones who have a constant stunned look of disbelief on their faces; they are the ones who are irritable, stressed, and anxious, not just from recently having learned about their disease, but mostly from the side effects of the steroids and other new drugs they had just started taking; and they are the ones who still have their hair.
After diagnosis, I was immediately admitted to the hospital for the first two weeks to begin my initial phase of chemotherapy and medications. From time to time I would see other new cancer patients as either I or they walked laps around the ward; or, I would see them pass by my door on their way to the little kitchenette for the always available ice cream or cup of noodles. Sometimes we would wave or nod our masked heads at each other. Oftentimes, we would just simply shuffle by each other without any acknowledgement.
After I was discharged from the cancer ward, I was admitted to the Inpatient/Outpatient Clinic. At IPOP, new cancer patients usually have appointments every day. Every day, my wife—my caregiver, my inspiration, and my guiding light—would pack me up and drive me to the hospital. The drive could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on Baltimore traffic. When I got to the hospital, I would reluctantly don my mask, reluctantly disinfect my hands, reluctantly enter the clinic, sit down, pull my ball cap down tight over my freshly shaved head, and glumly wait to be called by the nurse. Meanwhile, my wife, always positive, always cheerful, would sign in for me in the registry, make herself a cup of coffee, grab a magazine, and then sit beside me and try to cheer me up. Other familiar masked faces would also be there waiting with their caregivers.
Soon my wife became friends with several of the other caregivers and, through her reports, I would be able to track the progress of the other cancer patients from my class. It helped me to hear about them from my wife. Knowing that others are on a similar journey as yours, that others are just as confused, just as sick, just as scared as you are, provides a certain level of comfort and a sort of release. I was able to let go many of my fears and better accept my condition because I learned that nothing that I was going through was unique just to me.
Unfortunately, there are many, too many, cancer patients in my class. And even though I was familiar with all of them and drew strength from their silent encouragement and solidarity, I only came to personally know a few of them by name. And of those, I only know the current fate of two, which is too bad because I often think about all of those faces who I had come to know so well and wonder how they are doing now. I try not to wonder who didn’t make it.
Next year my cancer class will graduate. Sometime next year, we will meet with our oncologist and we will be released from his or her care. Our disability insurance will stop and we will hesitantly and apprehensively return to work. After graduation, we will be free and encouraged to begin other new and exciting journeys, which is why graduations are often called commencement ceremonies. And when our new journeys do commence, we will look around and see that there are others who are also just starting the journey, too. And, while we will hope that we never have to travel down the same road as we did on the journey we just ended, we will know that we will all be better travelers for it.