Thank God for the Chemo Room

October 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm (Uncategorized)

I’m writing this from the Cancer Treatment Center where I just learned that I’m in for at least a few more months of Rituxan—chemotherapy invented for lymphoma that also treats stubborn forms of sarcoidosis like mine.

When I first got this news, I began to plummet down a mineshaft of self-pity. I’ve been getting various forms of chemo for 4 years, and while I’m grateful that Rituxan is less awful than some of the others I’ve survived, it still brings difficult side effects—vomiting, hives, bottomless exhaustion, diarrhea. How much more fun can a girl take? I was ready to be done with it.

Discovering that my disease markers are up and I’ll to be Rituxan-izing for longer than I’d like seemed especially unfair today. Yesterday I returned from the four-day Surrey International Writers’ Conference, near Vancouver, Canada, falling in love with writing again. I met a group of fabulous, fun, and talented women writers. I learned about using social media to stay connected with other writers and to promote my own work. I picked up some great ideas on how to improve my book. I met with two agents who seemed genuinely interested in my project and requested I send them material.

It all made my head twirl. On the plane coming home, I outlined everything I would do in the next month—write shorter blog entries three times a week, rework my book’s introduction and then send it off to the agents, start a novel, finish my memoir, launch a Twitter account, ramp up my Facebook page.

For a sickening few minutes after I met with the doctor today, I swore I could actually hear the sound of these goals slurping down the drain of chronic illness. Again.

I am lucky my destination after the doctor’s appointment was the chemo room. It’s challenging—even for me—to sustain a pity party there. I plopped down in a chair next to a young mother whose breast cancer has metastasized. On my other side is a lymphoma survivor celebrating her 10th anniversary of the Rituxan treatments that saved her life. Across the room is a 7-year old girl crying about getting yet another needle stuck into her.

The chemo room isn’t simply a good reminder that my problems could always be worse. That my disease could roar back to virulence and swallow out a year’s worth of progress in one hideous relapse. That it could kill me. Or that my seven-year old son Andrew could became sick with something serious or chronic—like that bald-headed little beauty a few feet away.

But it’s not just about the parade of horribles. Spending time with really sick people is inspiring. These folks surrounding me here radiate life, even though they’re tethered to IV poles and carry grim prognoses. They display pictures of their family. They knit. They compare diagnoses and medication side effects with the facility and dispassion of stockbrokers talking about market movements. They contemplate lunch options. They talk about the weather. It’s all very in the moment. In my four years of coming to the chemo room, I’ve never heard anyone ever complain about a how crappy their job is, how hopeless their spouse can be, how much their friends annoy them, how much in need of renovation their kitchen is.

I’m not suggesting they’ve become illness-induced saints who have set aside earthly worries and escalated to higher plane. It’s just sometimes easier to appreciate your life when mortality smacks you hard in the face. And in my experience, there’s no better place to see your own mortality—or the possibility of it—than the chemo room. It illuminates the twisting corridors of my heart and shines a bright and steady light on my self-pity. In that fluorescent glow, I see that I am able to write this now. I will come home to a healthy and happy son and a partner who will bring me tea and nurse me back from the after-effects of chemo.

I’ll start working on my writing conference goals as soon as I’ve gotten through this round of chemo. I’ll find an agent. I’ll hold my book. Some day. For now, though, I am wonderfully alive.


  1. Elena Aitken said,

    Wow. Just wow. You made me cry and you’re SO right. Perspective is everything.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Elena. Keeping perspective is a daily battle for me–even after 7 years in Chronic Town and 4 years of chemo–I still sweat the small stuff and take myself waaay too seriously. So, while I’ll never say I’m glad that I got sick, I do believe the experience forces me to be a better person and I try to share some of what I learn as I go along.

      Thanks for reading! It was so awesome to meet you. While we’re talking about inspiring, you and the other 2 wordbitches helped make SIWC 2011 come alive.


  2. Leanne Shirtliffe said,

    I read this last night. I cried. I woke up thinking about you. Wow. I think I threw a pity party for you. You’re certainly allowed to throw one.

    Two words (and a lot of understatement): that sucks.

    And you are wonderfully alive. And just plain wonderful too.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Leanne. Getting kudos makes a pity party sweeter and nicer.

      Seriously, I am feeling pretty puky today, but your words brightened my mood and my day. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I hope you are basking in your book success.

  3. A Novel Woman said,

    Wow. Your post was very moving, and inspirational. (I found you through Leanne’s tweet.) I read, I cried, I got angry, and I took stock of my own life and petty complaints. Sure puts things in perspective.

    You’ve got mad writing skills!

    Not sure if we met last week, but I’ll look for you in Surrey next year.


    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Pam! I’m not sure we met either, but I will definitely look for you next year. Anyone who tells me I’ve got mad writing skills, I buy a drink! Seriously, I really appreciate your encouragement and kind words. Check back on my blog in a couple of days for a (hopefully) less serious entry.


  4. Marianne said,

    AND you accomplished your goal of writing shorter blog posts. Perfect!

  5. eileencook said,

    Well this news sucks. I promise to bring the bourbon to the pity party.
    Hang in there. Keep writing. It may only be a word here or there, but they do add up. I’m looking forward to hanging with you at next years SIWC

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Eileen,

      Just the word bourbon lifted my mood. What a great idea!

      I really appreciate the words of encouragement. It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that just writing a little every day is what it’s all about.

      I’m looking forward to seeing you next year,

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Julia Indigo said,

    Learned of this from LShirtlitte’s tweet. Made me cry. Thank you for writing.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      And thank YOU for reading and taking the time to comment, Julia. I’ll be posting again in a day two when I’m feeling better again.

      I really appreciate your positive feedback.


  7. Wendy Barron said,

    I was astonished to read the word “chemo” in your twitter, because I would never have guessed, from how you looked and acted at SIWC, that you were in the least bit sick or ever had been. You looked healthy and gorgeous and I was oh so admiring of your fantastic long red hair – oh gosh, is it a wig? – and you were so full of fun and energy!

    May your natural emotional buoyancy see you through the tough times ahead, and may they bring you back to The Table Beside the Bar at next year’s SIWC!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Wendy,

      One of the many things I’ve learned in the 4 years I’ve been getting chemo is that every chemotherapy agent is different and causes its own unique side effects. During the 2 years I was getting Cytoxan, I lost my long, straight blonde hair. When it grew back in fully, it was red and curly and became what you saw at the conference. (And thank you for the compliment). Rituxan doesn’t cause hair loss, but it does have its own laundry list of side effects.

      Another myth about chemo is that it causes you to waste away. I’ve never been on any treatment that has made me skinny (sadly). Quite the opposite. Every dose of chemo usually comes with a whalloping dose of IV prednisone, hence my round face and ruddy complexion that passes for healthy. That said, I am healthier now than I have been in many years, thanks in large part to Rituxan.

      Let me know if you have any other questions. My mission in launching my blog many years ago was to let people know what it’s like to live with an obscure, but potentially fatal, disease that no one (including me when I was diagnosed) has ever heard of. People with chronic illness often don’t look sick, which is part of what makes the experience so difficult.

      I really appreciate your encouragement. SIWC was such an amazing experience and I enjoyed getting to spend time with you.

      thanks and happy writing,

  8. Wendy Barron said,

    *may IT bring you back… Guh.

  9. kc dyer said,

    Well, I know who BOTH you and Pam are, Rebecca, so I will connect you next year, when you are with us, sharing the quest to pursue your writing goals, and being wonderfully alive.

    It was a pleasure to meet you. I wish you all the happiness that your writing brings you this year, Rebecca!


    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      That will be great, kc.

      SiWC blew me away. The workshops, the speakers, the connections, Dugoni’s pectorals…. I now feel energized to write a little every day, even when I’m feeling crappy–and not just from the memory of the shirt auction or the adrenaline of meeting an agent. I can feel possibility unfolding in me. It is such a gift. And your “Beginner Intensive” workshop was an awesome introduction to the conference and the publishing world. Thank you.

      I’m looking forward already to SiWC 2012.

      Happy writing,

  10. Rayna said,

    Thinking of you!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Rayna. Jay really enjoyed talking with Isaac the other day and he updated me on all the great stuff you’ve got going. We are thrilled for all of you.

      I really appreciate yiur reading my blog and taking the time to comment.


  11. evelynn starr said,

    Wow. Write on!

    Was great meeting you and chatting with you at siwc… You gave me a couple of really good ideas that I must act upon now. Wishing you all the very, very best in this new fight. Sounds like you are armed with an attitude that many of us wish we had.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Evelyn,

      Thanks! It was great to meet you too. Getting feedback and talking through ideas with the writers attending SiWC was just as valuable for me as the workshops. So, I’m really glad I was helpful.

      My attitude is definitely its own WIP (work in progress). Chronic illness has pushed me to cultivate gratitude and stay attuned to process instead of goals, but it doesn’t come easily for me. In some way, it’s like I needed to visit the chemo room right after the conference before I got so lost in worrying about finding an agent and cutting out my adverbs that I forgot to just enjoy writing (which I think was the most important take- away message all the speakers shared).

      I hope your writing is going well. Thanks for reading my blog today.


  12. Debbie L. said,

    You are an inspiration… I always come away from your writings with a positive thought. Blessings,

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thank you, Debbie, for these wonderfuly kind words. I don’t feel very inspirational, but I am glad that my ramblings resonate with you. It means a lot to me.

      I hope you are feeling well and that life is good.

      Take care,

  13. Holly Jolly? « Chronic Town said,

    […] back in the chemo room before Christmas. I’ve written about how special a place the chemo room is before. But I’m grateful to be here today for a more melancholy reason. One of the women I’ve had […]

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