Friday, March 8, 2013

Van people

I have been riding the cancer van for nine days now.   Only 19 to go!  The group has been pretty consistent, though everyone but me is almost done, so I will be the last of this current crop to be riding.

Judy "graduated" yesterday, in van people parlance.  She didn't talk much, but I know that she wore a different hand knit cap every day I saw her.  I believe she has knit enough hats that she probably wore a different one to each of her radiation days, with the occasional matching sweater.  She had/has (I really have no idea what tense to use) some sort of lung cancer that involved(s) her esophagus as well.  When she came out of her final treatment yesterday she had a mesh mold of her head that she wore to keep her perfectly still.  I don't know if that means there was or is cancer in her brain or not, and I did not ask.  She said she was going to turn the thing into a planter.

Kay just started riding.  She has cancer in a lymph node in her neck.  I don't have better information than that about her cancer.  She lives at the senior apartments a couple of miles from my house.  She has told me that both of her sons have cancer as well, one in the stomach that was stage 4 and has returned, and the other recently found out he has cancer in both lungs.  She seems like a good sport but sometimes reveals just how scary it all is.  Both "boys" served in Vietnam and she has wondered aloud more than once whether maybe Agent Orange had something to do with their current cancer situations.

Janet had a lumpectomy with radiation, estrogen positive, stage 2.  She lives all the way up the peninsula and doesn't seem to worried about her prospects.  We have chatted, and I am aware that she had a nephew who died of brain cancer as a teen, and that her sister had uterine cancer and has been cancer free for 13 years.

Grace lives in the same apartment as Kay.  I believe her cancer is uterine.  She has a niece close to the radiation facility and is going to stay there for the remainder of her treatment.  I have not talked to her very much, as most of the time she rode all the way in the front seat.

The guys in the back seat are my predominant chat mates.  Mark is a 9th grade English teacher with whom I have been somewhat aquainted through Lucy's Books.  He was fishing with a friend when he coughed up some blood, and subsequently found out he has/had throat cancer.  It was surgically removed along with a cancerous lymph node nearby, and he is winding up his radiation treatments next week.  I'm glad for him, but will be sad to see him go.  We have had some great chats about books, of course, as well as our kids, our parents, our adventures.

Mike is from northern Montana, near the Canadian border.  He came to the peninsula to visit his sister for Christmas, had some pain and coughed up blood, and finds himself still here being treated for throat cancer as well.  His is on both sides of his throat, and he has not had any surgery.  I try not to think about whether that is a good or bad sign.  He has weekly chemo and is closing in on the end of seven weeks of radiation.  He has a feeding tube and will continue to for at least two more months.    He, among all of us, looks most affected by cancer.  From his stories I think he did physical work.  He talks about hunting and fishing.  But having lost 40 pounds he looks pretty frail.  It is hard to imagine him before, but I try to.  He coughs a lot, and often has to spit.  His voice is pretty raspy, and some days he is just curled up back there trying to sleep.  I know from either overhearing or
participating in conversations with him, that he left home at 15 after threatening to kill his father if his father hurt his mother again.  I know he was educated a half a mile from my house at Tongue Point Job Corps.  I know that the last huge-style concert he went to was Led Zeppelin in the seventies.  I know he has a brother in jail and a brother who is dead, because of meth.  I know he has not done meth himself, and doesn't "understand that shit."  I know he has a huge gun collection, and woe to any invader of his home.

I have to say, I truly like each and every van person.  We have been passing three hours together five days per week.  As surreal as it all is, every day I am aware it could be a lot worse.  And in addition to the conversation, I am reading my third book already on these rides.  In the usual spirit of counting things, we have swerved to miss one deer, and today we saw a coyote at Gnat Creek.  We never know each day whether there will be a new rider, and oddly pretty soon for those people I will be the veteran.


  1. Such an experience brings everyone closer together. What descriptions!

  2. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for your post.


  3. And where are the reviews of the three books you have read? EVeryone wants to know
    what you are reading!!!

  4. Nice piece of writing, Laura--Poignant, vivid descriptions of your van mates.

    It's very interesting how close you can get with people you wouldn't think you had anything in common with, and how quickly it can happen. It happened to me last week, when my mother, and a woman who works as a manager at an Alberta Tar Sands oil company, and I took a three-hour drive in the Southern California desert. I could really empathize with her need to make more than $10 an hour, even though we both agreed the Tar Sands project is a total nightmare which has no future. She says there is absolutely no reclamation planned, and believes mountain-top removal is a less environmentally degrading activity. We ended up seeing one another a few more times over the few days Tom and I spent at the Fountain of Youth(she is 56, and had her mother sign the sales contract for her trailer there, since you have to be 60+ to get in).I decided I'd probably do the same thing, if need be, though flying in from Edmonton every three weeks, and spending those weeks in a camp, working 12 hours a day, with one week off, would be pretty grueling. But everyone has her price.

    Thanks for writing this blog.

    Sue S