Common Wisdom: Chemo Community

Every three weeks I take my mother for three consecutive days of chemotherapy. At age 86, she has joined the ranks of those of us who sometime in our lives battle cancer.

The cancer ranks seem ever expanding, frighteningly so. Who does not have someone in the family who is fighting this particular fight? And yet who, discovering oneself in this situation, is not shocked? Who, me?

Everyone with cancer, especially those in and out of chemo and radiation, is in a war. These people—sitting around the treatment room in recliner chairs, chatting, reading, sipping fluids, even laughing with each other as they while away the couple of hours they are attached to their own custom IV drip—are soldiers on the battle line. However, unlike soldiers in the military, they have had no boot camp or specialized training. They learn as they enter the actual fray. Without preparation, they leap in because they have to, and the choice is to battle or give up.

Their enemy is no respecter of age or station. Neither money nor power can buy the way out; neither youth nor beauty can escape. Next to my mother sits a pretty young woman with a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a two-month-old baby at home. Cancer has derailed her life, she makes clear. But it is obvious she is trying to concentrate, not on the “what if” but on getting out of chemo, both now and forever, and getting home to her babies. Her immediate regret is she was able to breast-feed her newborn for only a month.

While she sits with her IV, her husband, who says he does not want to stand around doing nothing, passes a basket of crackers and cookies to patients likewise confined by IV to their chairs. What he really means is that he feels helpless and must do something—anything—to advance his wife’s position, and indeed that of everyone in the room, against the enemy.

All are soldiers in wartime—this young husband and his wife; my mother; the English lady in the next chair and her arthritic husband who entertains her by chatting about items from the newspaper; the retired farmer across the room whose wife passed nine years ago and who still lives on the home place with his daughter; the nurses who move expertly among the patients, checking, adjusting, inserting.

Like soldiers, they do what humans naturally do under fire: They form a community. Because like soldiers, their stakes are so high, they immediately make common cause. This chemo treatment is no casual meeting over lunch; it is Churchill’s war room, primed to win. The great prize of victory is a cure; it can also be remission. Remission is almost as good as a cure, for if remission can win a day or a week, it can also win a month or a year, even decades. When a gentleman, who himself has diabetes, reports that his wife has just learned she is in remission, the chemo community applauds in genuine rejoicing. If his wife can be in remission, so can they. In this, as in all communities, the improvement of one improves the whole. Conversely, if one falls, the entire body is wounded and suffers.

United in their risk, united in facing life’s ultimate question of death, the chemo community strives to repel the enemy storming their city walls. Their first news of cancer was terrifying, but now terror will do no good and in fact is a hindrance. Inside the community, cancer looks much different from its appearance to those outside. Outside the community, onlookers say, “Cancer kills people.” Inside, the soldiers say, “Well, maybe, but maybe not—and certainly not without a fight. I’m still here—so now what do I do?” And they decide to go forward with chemo.

These soldiers united in the solidarity of the chemotherapy community are proof that, despite our concerns about the loss of traditional forms of community, the human inclination is and ever will be to seek the consolation of community life. Michael Novak has written for years of the concentric and overlapping circles of community in all our lives. Americans are especially adept at whirling within these overlapping circles of community—parish, school, work, gardening, sports teams, every kind of charitable endeavor, prayer groups, study circles, college alumni, neighborhood supper clubs, babysitting networks, support groups. Name it, and there is a community surrounding it, even cancer therapy.

The basis of some of these communities is pretty ephemeral; when the cause dissipates, its members move on. When their children graduate, parents leave the PTA. They may even move out of the neighborhood. Without a common cause, people leave a community, making way for new members, or if too few people find a common bond, the community itself dries up.

The cancer community is one that all its members hope to leave. Yet while there, they display many of the characteristics of a real community. Chiefly, they find their bond in the life-and-death truth that transcends them: Life, any life, even fragile and diseased life, is good. Therefore, how do they live it well? How do they be good and do good?

Any community that survives must be linked somehow to our search for the permanent things. Some communities are not so linked—and they are destined to evaporate. Others, with the Church as the highest example and model, owe their existence to the supernatural life that infuses them. The chemo community, centered on life as the Lord’s gift, never to be taken for granted, is one such genuine community.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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