May 28, 2013

The Cancer Survivor: Hope Lodge Hospitality House 2007

Vic listened to opera and walked laps during his stem cell transplant

“Congratulations,” Mark said as I packed up my food in the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge kitchen. Mark was the caretaker of the hospitality house where I stayed while Vic had a stem cell transplant at Strong Memorial Hospital. Vic’s blood count was rising toward normal, so after three weeks, we were leaving Rochester and heading home.

Hope Lodge had given me privacy, peace, and a communal kitchen where I cooked soups and made simple meals for Vic and me. Mark was a constant reassuring presence, making sure I had the combination to the door lock, showing up to say hello while I cooked, or sweeping snow off the sidewalk. He watched over all the residents of Hope Lodge, a stressed group seeking temporary shelter and community while we or a family member underwent cancer treatment.

“Congratulations. You are survivors,” Mark said as I handed him the keys to my room. Then he gave me two little pins that said Cancer Survivor.

Barbara, Lenore, and Janet painting with me in old Hope Lodge library
Barbara, Lenore, and Janet visited and painted with me in the Hope Lodge library

“Thank you,” I said, appreciating his kindness. I wanted to believe him, but Mark hadn’t heard the oncologists say that Vic’s lymphoma was incurable. I wanted to believe in Vic’s survival nearly as much as I wanted my own breath, but knew Vic had only survived chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant and could go home until he needed treatment again.

I took the pins, but didn’t wear mine or give Vic his. Survivor was too big a word then. We could only think about the next day or the next week. Vic hoped to finish his book and live a reasonable life in the short term. His vitality and will were impressive, but we were not in charge.

We took each day as grace, enjoyed our sons, friends, and the gift of time together. Vic grew a new crop of short black hair salted with streaks of white, but scans showed worrisome spots near the lungs and heart. Vic meditated with unceasing dedication. He lifted weights and within months regained aerobic fitness. I prepared organic food and watched over him, even when he didn’t need my hovering. We were tender with each other as we grieved over our future. Petty irritations were easier to ignore. We walked our trails that summer and soaked up the beauty of the land. Vic seemed so strong that hope slipped in.

In October, cancer returned with destructive fury. Despite all I knew, I was shocked. I had grown used to Vic’s strong reliable body in just four months. How could he be so fit and still have cancer? That’s the way cancer is. That’s the way life is.

Vic was not destined to be the first person to beat this disease. Besides, we were facing the larger truth that no living being escapes death. We knew in our gut what we’d been taught by many spiritual teachers. We only had each moment.

Despite the outcome, I am grateful for the encouragement of Mark’s heartfelt kindness. As I promised Vic and myself, I have created a good life on my own since his death. So even though Vic didn’t make it, I am a cancer survivor.

What difficulties or losses have you survived? For other stories about surviving cancer, see Speeding to Strong Cancer Center or Continuing Bonds. If you or someone you love needs support and lodging during cancer treatment in Rochester, I highly recommend staying at Hope Lodge.




14 Comments

  1. May 29, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)

    Reply

    Indeed you are a survivor, Elaine, and so much more than that. I am in the midst of reading your amazing manuscript, and I am in awe of you and your beautiful writing . . . ♥

    1. May 30, 2013 at 9:29 am

      Elaine Mansfield

      Reply

      Thank you, Marty. As you know, this kind of grief feels impossible to survive in the beginning, but we had helpers all along the way and I have them still. Thank you for your encouraging words about the manuscript. It was polished and polished and will likely be polished again after an acquisitions editor decides to take a chance on an unknown writer.

  2. May 29, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Ann Napoletan

    Reply

    Beautiful, Elaine…. leaves me speechless….

    1. May 30, 2013 at 9:25 am

      Elaine Mansfield

      Reply

      Thank you, Ann. I’m grateful for all the help we had from many people, including the caring folks at American Cancer Society Hope Lodge. How would we get through these hard times without human kindness?

  3. May 29, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    eve

    Reply

    you have this kind way of getting right to the core. the way you write and your lived experience teach me. thank you

    1. May 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      Elaine Mansfield

      Reply

      Thank you, Eve. It makes me happy to know that writing about these hard times is useful and touching. Sending love your way.

  4. May 29, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Gita

    Reply

    Elaine, thank you as always for your compassionate witnessing…

    1. May 29, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      Elaine Mansfield

      Reply

      Thank you, Gita, for reading, responding, and knowing the value of good caretakers.

  5. May 29, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Fred Weiner

    Reply

    Gorgeous writing. You write, “Vic seemed so strong that hope slipped in.” Something about that laser-sharp phrase captures the whole experience for me. An expression from all of you, body, mind, soul, thought and feeling, all in a few words. And allowing me to feel it, almost as my own. What magic.

    1. May 29, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      Elaine Mansfield

      Reply

      Thank you, Fred, for your poet’s ear. I love that line, too. It’s thrilling when a phrase appears that feels right. Thanks for letting me feel the magic.

  6. May 29, 2013 at 4:34 am

    Meditativedishwashing

    Reply

    As i read & remember my journey with my mom’s cancer, I resonate with your statement, “we were facing … that no living being escapes death.” I regret how it looms larger than recovery sometimes, but it also caused me to appreciate our time on an unprecedented level. I’m finding i’m still facing that larger truth every day, even though she’s been gone since August. Not sure if it’s good to think about it that often. I mean, I’m still alive, I did survive her cancer, so I owe it to her to live fully.

    1. May 29, 2013 at 7:55 am

      Elaine Mansfield

      Reply

      I promised Vic in his last weeks that I’d find a way to make a good life without him. He was relieved to hear my resolve. Somehow I imagine your mom wants the same for you. August isn’t even a year, and it’s taken me years to digest my experiences with Vic’s illness. Obviously, I’m still working on it. And knowing what we know and what mortality is, we know the preciousness of life and love. Thank you for your touching note.

  7. May 28, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    Robin Botie

    Reply

    This warmly brings back my time at Hope Lodge, the cancer families’ home away from home. The kitchen at Hope always smelled like curry when I was there and I could find someone cooking something at all hours of the day and night who was happy for the company. Some great times amid all the struggles and sadness. And walking the halls at Strong wearing a mask alongside my masked daughter. People thought WE were contagious. I never thought I’d smile at the memories from that time. I guess I’m a cancer survivor too. Thank you for this.

    1. May 29, 2013 at 7:48 am

      Elaine Mansfield

      Reply

      Robin, we both survived and lived to tell our tales. Thanks for remembering with me. You’re one of the few people I know who remembers the old Hope Lodge (they’ve moved to a new spiffy location) and those oncology wards at Strong. Thanks you for being a woman of grief and power.

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