On my last day of radiation, I sat eagerly awaiting my release from six months of treatment. In anticipation, my eyes scanned the fluorescently lit, crowded waiting room of Abramson Cancer Center. As I waited for my name to be called for the last time, I thought about the young girl—about five years old—who I noticed in the waiting room the prior week. Her head was bald, and a yellow mask protected her small face. She sat in a wheel chair, which was too big to accommodate her tiny frame despite being made for children. The ill-fitted device called even more attention to what I was thinking: She shouldn’t be here. None of us should be in this waiting room but especially not her.
I thought about how lucky I was when I was six. The humid Philadelphia summer evenings of my childhood had been spent eating cherry popsicles in my parents’ backyard and running through the sprinkler, feeling wet, squishy grass beneath my feetWhen dusk settled into darkness, I would walk around a white flowered dogwood tree and catch lightning bugs.
I hoped the little girl I saw spent more days playing in her backyard than confined to a waiting room filled with yearning. All of us were waiting for the day we didn’t have to feel scared and uncomfortable anymore. We were waiting for life to resume. She didn’t appear to be burdened by this same longing, I realized, as her eyes connected with mine. She sat serenely in her chair while I impatiently tapped my leg, wishing I could be anywhere else. I knew I couldn’t have handled a cancer diagnosis at her age with as much grace.
I remembered the girl’s mother had wheeled her towards the exit of the waiting room. Please let her ring the bell. Please! I held my breath as she passed near the silver bell that hung from a wooden pedestal. Ringing the bell was a rite of passage for any patient who completed their treatment. The girl’s mother stopped at the bell, and I saw a small arm reach up and forward to grab the wooden clapper that was attached to a string. Thank God. Sound permeated the room, and everyone applauded. The girl’s eyes hinted at a smile under her mask and her body sat a bit taller in her chair, projecting the same pride as if she were the winner of a spelling-bee contest.
My name was finally called, breaking my train of thought, and I walked back to the changing area. Once I was gowned, I stepped out into the patient waiting room and stood in the doorway, peering out into the hallway periodically to ensure I wasn’t missed for treatment.
In the emptiness of the room, I wished for the company of a woman with breast cancer who had become a familiar face and a comforting maternal presence. When we spoke, deep lines hugged the corners of her mouth, suggesting she laughed often. We met on my first day of treatment, and I recalled our conversation when she glanced at me as I sat in a chair facing her.
“What are you here for?” I asked.
“Breast cancer,” she replied, “full mastectomy.”
I winced. “You look good,” I told her. This was one of the only compliments many of us paid to one another. If you looked good, your treatment was going easier than most.
“What are you here for?” she asked.
“Lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s,” I replied.
“How old are you?” she asked.
She shook her head vigorously then stopped and fixed her eyes on me again.
“My daughters are in their thirties. I’m so glad it’s me here and not them,” she moved back further into her chair.
I realize now that the look I saw in her eyes on that first day of treatment is the same look I must have given the little girl weeks later. She was relieved she wasn’t me. She was relieved her daughters were not me. How lucky, she must have thought, that she was healthy as a young woman.
The definition of luck evolves after a cancer diagnosis. What used to be a simple dichotomy – lucky or unlucky – stretches into a continuum that is flanked by the number of blissful moments before cancer and the number of moments to be lived after cancer. Luck used to be finding a quarter on the ground or free parking in the city or winning anything more than a dollar on a scratch-off lottery ticket. Now, luck was a good day feeling like you used to or that moment when you first wake up and, for a few unburdened seconds, forget what has happened to you. It is lucky to see a sunset or feel the embrace of someone you love. And, it is still very lucky to catch a lightning bug.
A woman in her mid-forties entered the waiting room, returning from her treatment. She had thick hair that fell to her chest and was pinned haphazardly in the front with a small clip. I looked with envy at her as she passed through the room. How lucky is she to be done for the day. How lucky is she to still have her beautiful hair. Although I lost my hair months before radiation, feelings of discomfort would rise every time I caught my hairless reflection in the mirror or a car window. I would have given anything in that moment to experience the sensation of placing my hair behind my ears or threading it together carefully into a braid.
My name was called again, and I was ushered back to the treatment room to receive radiation. Technicians secured me to the hard, cold table with my radiation mask and placed a breath hold tube in my mouth. The breath hold apparatus mimicked a snorkel with goggles, a mouth piece and a nose clip. Every day during treatment, I pictured myself diving into clear blue water searching for fish to ease the claustrophobic panic that set in when my entire upper body was restrained. As my treatment began, I thought about how luck’s definition becomes even more complicated when examining its relativity.
Cancer is generally classified as an unlucky disease yet even that is relative. Some people find luck in having a particular type of cancer or early disease staging. It can be lucky to have fewer side effects from treatment or have the support of loved ones on good days and bad days. Luck can also be measured by quality of the time before and after cancer. Luck can be remission and luck can be acceptance. Relativity shatters the dichotomy – it seems you can be both very unlucky and very lucky at the same time.
To prove my own theory of luck’s relativity, I turned towards another recent memory. Midway through my chemotherapy treatment I lost my dad who had been a steady beacon of light in this world. Extended family and friends approached me at his funeral with teary faces and said, “How unfair this is. How unlucky you must feel dealing with your treatment and your father passing.” What they didn’t know is that I am the luckiest person in the world. My cancer was caught accidentally and early, and because of this, my treatment plan was shorter than most people diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I would also rather embrace every moment of grief I experienced from the loss of my dad than spend one day not being his daughter. I had a wonderful dad for thirty years. When I was six, it was my dad handing me a popsicle in the backyard on a warm summer evening and my dad holding me close when a game of hide and seek became too scary. Our memories together play like a montage through my mind and soul every day. How many children in this world never know that kind of love? How many children, like the girl in the waiting room, experience a childhood with undeserved hardship? I am a lucky person.
My treatment ended unceremoniously with the technicians freeing me from the radiation mask. I thanked them and walked down the cold, white hallway back to the changing rooms. As I dressed, I rationalized that luck is always with us, we just have to want to find it. Even in the darkest night, if we search the horizon until our eyes are strained, we might find a small beam of light in the distance to guide us forward.
After I changed out of my gown, I walked slowly into the general waiting room and made my way towards the bell. I paused to take in the room exactly as it was that day. I wanted to remember what it was like to be there in that capacity, in that moment. I reached for the bell clapper and pulled it towards the mouth. The quiet room erupted in applause as the first sound of the bell pierced the air. I stood facing the bell, listening to its echoing sound, and felt both relieved and guilty. The bell only rings for the lucky ones.
Kara Daddario Bown is a writer who lives outside of Philadelphia. Her writing focuses on her experiences with illness as well as being a Philadelphia native. She has performed at The Moth and is a StorySLAM winner. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Belladonna, The Pennsylvania Gazette and The Penn Review. She holds a Bachelors in English and Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania.