Where They Say the Word Right Out Loud
Cancer. Say it out loud. Say it boldly. Cancer is one of those words we fear. We all fear the idea or concept of something more than we fear the real thing when finally confronted with it. The reason is simple. You can fight a thing, but not your own idea of that thing. My mother has Cancer. Say it out loud. Cancer.
For the last several days I have been hanging around MD. Anderson’s Cancer Center in Houston for my mother’s pre-op, operation and post operation days. Three days in all. My brother and cousin (a retired nurse) have been taking care of my mother’s cancer situation for the last year and a half. They have spent hours and hours at M.D. Anderson, my time there has been comparatively short. But you can learn a lot about a place in three days. The biggest thing I learned is that the people at M.D. Anderson help bring cancer out into the light of day where you can talk about it and deal with it. I think that , more than even the treatment, the institute offers a chance to move past the terrors of the disease and turn it into something that you can deal with. It is a great service, almost as great as the healing itself, because it is the necessary beginning of the healing process. At M.D. Anderson they say “Cancer” right out loud ,toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball, and often as not, it is the Cancer that blinks.
For those of you who have not been to M.D. Anderson, I will say that it begins as an intimidating experience. Of necessity, the buildings of the Houston Medical Center are large and close together. One feels like one is walking through Albert Speers’ “Germania” concept brought to life. The immensity of the scale can leave you feeling powerless. For the week, my mother, a college graduate, traveled with a retired nurse from the medical center, an expert in media and public relations, and a lawyer. She needed everyone of them to cope. What would it have been like for her if she had been a non-English speaker from a small town in India or Thailand or Brazil walking these streets alone ? How would she have coped ? On the outside, M.D. Anderson looks less like a hospital (which it is only in part) than a terrifying series of massive steel Department of Defense edifices, some connected by skywalks which go on for a quarter of a mile. It is big beyond belief, each building filled to the brim with patients and medical personnel. Along the skywalk speed large electric carts each loaded with five passengers speeding from building to building, dodging the hundreds of pedestrians walking back and forth , most of them employed at the Center. How many must there be ? Yet, believe it or not, they all had something in common. They were all helpful.
I don’t mean helpful in the common sense meaning of the word “Oh, the doctors and nurses were all helpful.” I mean it in the strictest sense, the “I can’t believe this” sense, the “did you ever see anything like this ?” sense. At some point in time, and this is the only way this can be explained, M.D. Anderson decided that it was going to have a corporate culture which was the polar opposite of its physical appearance. When this culture started, or how long it has been ingrained in the system, I don’t know, but it has metastasized through virtually all of its employees. I have never at any business I have been to, witnessed more helpfulness from strangers. You never have to ask any employee where anything is, they see your face looking quizzical and they come over to help you out. Not just the security folks and the desk clerks, everyone. A trivial example is the surgeon who saw me entering one of the buildings from the skywalk and look around. “what can I help you with?” he asked. I said that I was looking for a men’s room. He proceeded to not tell me, but to walk with me over to a hall where he pointed out a men’s room. This kind of thing goes on there twenty four hours a day, as near as I can tell. It helps you relax. It gives you the feeling that you are never alone and that almost everyone is watching out for you and working with you.
After a couple of days, you don’t feel like you are fighting the huge bureaucracy that you have encountered, you learn to take the waiting and the tardiness of the professionals a little better. I sat in a waiting room next to a 70 year old fellow who was on his cell phone. “Oh, I’m just over here at Anderson, getting some chemo” he chuckled. I truly believe that that relaxed outlook would be impossible without the atmosphere that they are trying to promote there. It was that atmosphere that helped this guy say “Cancer” right out loud and not shudder. I was impressed. After awhile I could say it, really for the first time in my life, I could say it properly, not whispered or said nervously. “Cancer”, it’s just another word. We respect words, we don’t fear them. We should always remember as Humpty Dumpty tried to explain to Alice, that it is a question of who is to be the master, you, or the word ?
At the end of the three days, we took my mom home. None of us had had much fun least of all she, but I think that we all thought that it had been handled as well as it is possible to do. My mother said to me, “You know, it all happened so fast, it’s like it never happened at all. “ Well, it happened, as she knows and feels, but the fact that she could say something like that just a few hours out of a hospital bed said a lot about the process. It is not perfect, no one really likes it, but I think that they may be onto something over there. Say it with me, without fear, “Cancer”. That’s a big first step.