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The Cancer Cars

Cars 2Who knew a red slash could spark such emotion? I had been to Houston many times in my life, but I had never been to this place. We rode the early morning shuttle from our hotel to the hospital. Mom was the first to climb out of the fifteen passenger van. Her first step out was memorable. It was as if the unexpected November heat melted her legs, causing the whole lower half of her body to slowly cascade onto the sidewalk. Stunned, I jumped from the van to make sure she hadn’t injured herself. I was just as shocked to find her sitting there giggling, partly amused at her collapse and a bit embarrassed over all her commotion being witnessed by the fleet of vehicles dropping off countless other patients. This was the first time we would see the dramatic side effects of her steroids. The combination of weakness and fluid retention caused by her medication made her legs more like two giant jelly donuts than the instruments God had intended for walking. Still, that was preferable to the side effects of the brain swelling caused by her tumors.

It took a couple of minutes and a couple of people to get her back on her feet, where she was surprisingly stable and pleasantly humored. That’s when I saw it — that glorious red slash. We turned to head toward the main entrance, and my eyes were struck by the hospital logo. Strangely, I don’t recall the medium, whether it was a t-shirt, a sign, or letters on the building, but in bold letters it read, “MD Anderson Cancer Center: Making Cancer History.” The word cancer had a stylized bright red slash running through its center, signifying the purpose and mission of the number one cancer hospital in the country — Making Cancer History. The double meaning wasn’t lost on any of us. The slash, the motto, the droves of other patients walking through the doors, they all made us feel like we were in the right place, as though we were no longer walking into a hospital, but into a place where we belonged — a place that hated cancer as much or more than we did. That was a moment of many firsts, including the first sense that we were now part of a new community we never really knew existed or at least never thought had open membership.

Once inside, I experienced another first that would be repeated countless times over the next few days. We boarded the elevator and were on our way up to the ninth floor. We stopped after a few floors, and another patient got on. He was clearly a patient — too thin to be healthy, missing his hair, wearing a hat, and pale. He was young, maybe late twenties, wearing a backpack, and he stood opposite us on the right side of the elevator. He glanced at us knowingly, as if we looked like the newbies we were, and then we all looked up as though we could see the floor we were ascending to. I wasn’t so much shocked by that first episode. It was the cumulative effect of seeing the same thing over and over. Of course, each time it happened the person on the elevator was different. It wasn’t their cancer or their appearance that stunned me. One grows quickly accustomed to those things. It was that just like that first young man I had seen, they were all riding the elevators . . . ALONE.

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