Cancer Gadfly: Infusion for Two

When infusion does not mean something to drink, herbal tea, or when in France, a tisane. Something soothing, that takes its flavor from the tender soaking of herbs, a delicious warmth, perfect for lingering at the end of certain meals, on a chilly afternoon, or a quiet evening. Infusion: a suave taste to savor.

But now when we cancerites are scheduled for an infusion it comes not in a china cup but in a clear plastic bag of chemicals, suspended from an IV pole, dripped slowly through a slender tube leading to your arm (or hand, or port). Infusion, poetic word for chemotherapy, chemoflage, as Lochlann Jain dubs the language of euphemism we are lulled into accepting. What choice do we have?

Last week my friend the writer Aoibheann Sweeney and I discovered that we were both having chemo the same day, on the same floor of the same institution, around the corner from the institution where we both work. How to resist taking advantage of the coincidence? The chemo nurses, always happy to oblige the patients, set us up in facing spaces. We could see each other across the aisle–and talk. We talked without acknowledging the chemicals slowly dripping into our bodies. It was almost like a continuation of the lunch we had just had together at the local Pain Quotidien. As though we had finished our meal with a tisane.

Almost, but of course not the same at all. Nor, despite the shared setting, do we occupy the same space in Cancerland. Aoibheann is a young woman with breast cancer. She has already undergone mastectomy and radiation. She is also the mother of two small children. Her treatment has been dramatically more painful than mine but, fortunately, of a much shorter duration. Neither of us knows what our cancers will mean for the years to come. I hope Aoibheann has many years of life to ahead to enjoy, and books to write.

twofridasnancy3Still, we were there together getting infused. Casual as everyone around us was―how amusing, two friends having chemo at the same time!―there was no way for us to ignore the violence of our reality. I witnessed Aoibheann’s nurse make a bad stick, fail to get the needle into her arm at the right angle. The last time I had a bad stick I almost fainted watching the nurse mangle vein after vein, and then bungle the draw. Aoibheann, spunkier than I’ve ever been, just held the piece of cotton over the problem spot, as the nurse went to find someone more competent to complete the task, and continued chatting.

The cancer industry works hard at keeping patients hopeful. It’s in their interest to do so since it sells more drugs and makes more money for big Pharma, not to mention hospitals; maybe one or both of us will find that hope justified.

For now, though, we’ll try to think tisane not poison, and be glad that unlike our suffering muse Frida, there really are two of us.