As a fairly social 23 year old, I am constantly meeting new people and engaging in the routine small talk that characterizes such encounters. “What are you going to order? How do you know so-and-so? Why have the past five songs all been by Rihanna?” The usual introductory topics.
Then they’ll ask, “So what do you do?” When I answer, “I work in a cancer clinic,” about 80 percent of the time, my new friend(s) are unsure how to respond. It is a mixture of shock and awe, like, wow, that’s wonderful that you are able to help people but, ugh, it must be such a depressing environment to be in.
This reaction is founded on the assumption of what a cancer patient is: the general image of a pale, frail, bald, overwhelmingly sick-looking person.
When I elaborate further, adding, “I love my job!”, perhaps this statement is even more shocking than the previous. But, allow me to explain, I am not surrounded by morose-looking people. In fact, most of the time, the patients do not look much different than someone with a less concerning pathology.
Forget “Where’s Waldo”, there is no white and red striped snow hat that marks someone with cancer. I work at the front desk of the medical oncology clinic and when a patient comes with a posse of family members, sometimes I have no idea who is the patient is!
A person is sitting in the waiting room. Are they here for an appointment? Did they come with someone who had an appointment? Are they just hanging out here because we have semi-decent magazines? Do they have a meeting with an employee? Unless specifically asked, nothing about their physical appearance is remarkably telling.
From my experience, I think patients with cancer defy a certain physical image. They can be young, old, short, tall, in a wheelchair, or sprinting down the halls. What I can say, however, is I have witnessed the most admirable of character traits in their extraordinary strength, commitment, compassion, hope, and resilience. And that is what I love about my job.
There is one patient who must have the first appointment of the morning so that she can continue working while receiving treatments. Then there is another who needs the last appointment of the day so that she has time to pick up her kids from school. I also see another patient every Tuesday. He comes once a week for a lifetime of infusions, always accompanied by his wife, and never misses a day. And it is always inspiring to see patients, young and old, making every effort to help themselves – to walk down the hall instead of using a wheelchair, to carefully put on lipstick and matching jewelry instead of simply rolling out of bed.
These people, and so many others, are living with cancer; they are survivors.