The van is a lot different than it was when I started. There are three of us riding now, though I have no idea whether there will be others next week. One does not know, day to day.
Smoking Barb sits in front of me. She had a lumpectomy and is a few weeks behind me on the radiation. I mean her nickname (my own, private nickname) in the most inoffensive way. I have no truck with her for her habit. Mike (throat cancer, back seat) was struggling with smoking. I know it is just plain hard to give up addictions. There is no judgement on my part. But the fact that Barb walks the parking lot smoking after her treatment and seconds before climbing back on the van is why I call her Smoking Barb. My only wish is that she was a little more conscious of how bad it sometimes smells in that moment of being shut in the van with her. Even a mint would go a long way! Anyway, because our treatments are so few and we have such a quick turnaround right now, I feel like Barb has less time to smoke, which is better for me, worse for her. I brought her up at dinner one night and both my teens were adamently opposed to me talking with SB about the issue. Granted, there is not much harder topic to bring up with another person, especially one you hardly know, than their smell. I had an employee once who I actually fired because she smoked outside then walked right back into the book shop. Not a good smell for a book shop. It sucked though, because no matter how little I was judging her for smoking, it all seems pretty judgemental when trying to address it. Back to my teens. They in all their teendom said I would offend her no matter what (quite possibly true), and in all their ultra-teendom thought I would really embarass myself by bringing up the topic. In the end, I don't have the energy to ask her to give up her guilty, smelly, unhealthy pleasure. We on the van are all dealing with a lot of shit, including her, and it is not my place to compromise her dignity.
Speaking of dealing with shit... Another Judy started riding last week. I took the bench behind her at first, but moved next to her when I realized she was talking to me non-stop and I could not hear a word of what she was saying. Judy is 72 and dying of lung cancer (diagnosed two Augusts ago) that is all over her brain now. She seems pretty damn matter-of-fact about it. Today is the yard sale she has been working on for a while. She told me she agreed to the radiation because it could give her some of summer and gardening. Otherwise she was never willing to have chemo; she says it is poison (of course it is! That is the point of it!) and is suspicious of "big pharma's" motives... Judy talks... a LOT, due to the massive amounts of steroids she is on. Given what my very low dose prednisone does, I am not at all surprised that she talks non-stop. I figure the least I can do is listen. I like Judy, though some of her topics would definitely preclude me from appreciating her much in another non-van life. One day she was off about teachers and the schools, you know, are teachers still underpaid, I mean, do they "think" they're underpaid? I did gently explain that in the realm of professionals with the level of education teachers have to have and constantly maintain and upgrade that yes, they are underpaid. I also gently explained that our schools DO use what money we get efficiently, that it quite simply is not enough. Yesterday it was children in restaurants, ruining her meal... you get the picture. However, being van people together makes it all a bit different. I am amazed by Judy, matter-of-factly deciding how and when to let her life go.
We are strange bedfellows on the van. I am not really looking for any profound connection among all of us. Obviously none of us wants to be there, and we are all gritting our teeth and counting the days (four more for me!). At the same time, I believe we are all very grateful for it. I know I could get to Longview without it day after day. I am relatively young and healthy, and if I got tired of all the driving I have a husband and friends that would have helped (I had several friends offer to do driving with me, and though I haven't mentioned that here, I am still so touched and grateful). Still, it is a fantastic and helpful service, and is saving me gas dollars as well as more fatigue and logistics. Observing the other van people for five weeks now my objective assessment is that many of them would not have been able to get to Longview for radiation day after day without it. Some folks have trouble just getting in and out of the van.
(An aside: someone on NPR was discussing social safety nets and addressed the idea of the private, as well as public, safety nets that some people have, though may never define them as such. I realized right away that I have an amazing private safety net. I know that if medical bills became too large, we would not lose our home, because of our families. I know that friends have not hesitated to step in and help us, with food, etc. throughout my cancer. In all this I had one potential insurance snafu and realized that because of our safety net I would not need to access, in fact I felt I would be remiss to access, the financial aid services of the hospital. Because of my excellent health insurance safety net though, the snafu was resolved. I just want to acknowledge my gratitude and my awareness that in many ways I am so, so lucky.)
Someone, I can't remember who, told me that Dr. Kim (the radiation oncologist) was working in Portland and went to Longview to set up a radiation oncology service clinic for people "between the cities" to get radiation. He seems like a unique guy. I believe he actually rode around the route with the van driver to set up and plan this amazing (no cost) service so that it would be easier to get radiation treatment.
As I have four more radiation treatments this is my last Van People. Unless of course, an irresistible character or two climb on next week. After Thursday my cancer treatment is sort of, officially, finished, aside from the Herceptin infusions (seven more) and years of Tamoxifen pills . I say this with a grain of salt, of course. I could have called this blog, You Just Never Know What is Going to Happen, since I'm sorry to say, that is the real takeaway. I think the van people would agree.