My husband and I have spent a great deal of time at MD Anderson over the past two months. We knew it, of course, by its reputation and national ranking. It's one of the best cancer hospitals in the US and even the world. And people travel to MD Anderson from all corners of the globe for cancer treatment. It is an awe-inspiring facility.
Our first impression of MD Anderson
When we first arrived at MD Anderson for my husband's prostate cancer treatment, we truly were not sure what to expect. It was intimidating. It was scary to think of my husband being so sick that we needed to be here. What would the atmosphere be like? All those desperately ill people, all those brilliant doctors, all that world class equipment -- how would we fit in?
It is true that MD Anderson is a cancer hospital and the patients there have cancer. You see signs of it everywhere you look. You see people wearing face masks because their immune systems are compromised. You see men and women pushing their spouses, parents or children around in wheelchairs. You see folks pushing their IV poles as they navigate the hallways and cafeteria lines.
But what you don't see are people who are dying of cancer. Instead you see people who are LIVING with cancer. People laughing and talking and visiting with one another. You see friends there, supporting their loved one with cancer. You see multi-generational families, eating meal together and enjoying every minute of it. You see aging parents visiting with adult children. Sometimes you really can't tell who the patients are and who the visitors are. And everywhere you see joy. People who are happy to be alive and connected with the world.
Looking forward to ringing the bell
Talk among strangers is common in the waiting areas, in the elevators, in the gift shops. We are all in the same boat. People discuss their symptoms, their individual cancers, their treatments with a frankness and honesty that is amazing. There is no delicate tip-toeing around the "big C" at MD Anderson. Instead, there is an honest exchange of information that is both helpful and reassuring, not anxious and frightening as you might expect. "We are here; we are surviving" is the universal message.
As we sit in the various lounges, awaiting chemotherapy treatment or radiation treatment, we cannot help but feel our circumstances are not any worse than anyone else's. Our cancer is not so unique. Our chances are not so slim. Our prognosis is not so dire. It is impossible not to feel hope. Surely, where there are so many people receiving so many treatments, there is success. There is victory. There is life.
At MD Anderson, there is a great tradition involving a lone brass bell that hangs in the radiation centers. Patients who have completed their treatment ring the bell as they exit for the last time. Spontaneous applause erupts each time the bell rings. Smiles and congratulations from both patients and staff burst forth like rays of sunshine across the room.
And each one of us looks forward to the day when it is our turn to ring the bell. There can be no doubt that one day our turn, too, will arrive. We will survive. We will live our lives. And cancer will only be a small part of our whole being.
We will not allow ourselves to die of cancer. Instead, we will go on living until the good Lord calls us home.
Cancer does not signal the end of life. Cancer is only one facet of our life. And life, as they say, is beautiful.