The Things We Carried to Chemo

Lisa Glatt explores first her mother’s and then her own experiences with cancer in the context of national politics and family life.

By Lisa GlattAugust 21, 2022

The Things We Carried to Chemo

I’M NOT AT WAR, but at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.


I don’t carry a gun or ammunition or even a pocket knife, but I do carry a bottle of water and a pillow stuffed with beads that wraps around my neck and reminds me of plane trips, other journeys of my choosing.


I’m post–hysterectomy and ovarian cancer diagnosis — and am here for my second treatment.


I am not charging into battle but being shuffled along. Earlier, my husband led me to the car, to the 405 freeway, up La Cienega Boulevard and down Beverly. At the cancer center, we were treated to valet parking and I could almost pretend we were headed to a fancy restaurant.


People tell me to fight. They call me a warrior. They tell me how their friend fought or their cousin fought or they themselves fought, how they won, which is obvious, so obvious because they’re standing here or sitting here, alive, claiming victory. It’s not a fight, I’m thinking, it’s submission, it’s leaning back, full of Xanax, and offering up a body, a vein.


They called my mom a cancer survivor. For two and a half years, they flattered and cheered her on. You’re so strong. What a fighter, they said. But then, her limp appeared, breast cancer having moved to her hip, and the cheers dwindled. When the cancer moved to her liver, she glowed yellow, slept 12-hour nights, took nap after nap, and the cheers completely ceased.


We carry our aches and indignities, the long scars that are still red and shiny. We carry our IV stands, pulling them behind us when we go to the bathroom, where there’s a sign, prominently displayed, that orders us in bold, black letters to flush twice, which I obey, wondering which chemicals are so toxic that the velocity of one flush won’t suffice.


One woman, wearing an ice cap on her head, shuffles the corridor in pink, furry slippers. She is so skinny, just bones where her cheeks should be, already so sick, the sickest among us perhaps, but she’ll keep her hair, God damn it. The ice cap is blue and the ice is visible, a band of white wrapped around her skull.


They called my mom a survivor before they called her a woman who lost her battle.


It’s been 20 years since her death and now it’s my turn.


I don’t carry David, he carries me.


I carry lip balm.


I carry gummy worms made of cannabis and my own secret supply of Xanax.


I carry hand lotion that smells like lemonade.


I carry my attitude, which is not good or bad, although people say it must be good if I am to survive. They mean well, these people, and want to confirm I have, they have, a modicum of control, which is hooey, which is nonsense. I reject the challenge to cure myself or to take responsibility for my success or failure here.


My mom had a good attitude, but still cancer did its thing. She was an optimist until four weeks before she died — at which point she opened her eyes a realist and demanded morphine, then more morphine, then more.


“What hurts?” I said.


“Nothing,” she said. “Get me more,” she demanded.


And I did.


¤


My husband holds my hand, guides me down a bright hallway and into the elevator, ushering me toward the lab. After blood work, he leads me to the reception area, sits down a minute before getting up to find a bathroom, leaving me with the others.


We are the sick.


We are sullen-faced, in yoga pants and spongy shoes, in wigs or scarves or boldly bald.


We are strangers but intimate, too, greeting each other with half smiles that know everything.


We carry our arms, which are heated with packs, our cowardly veins smacked and smacked until they appear, blue and resigned, until they are stuck with winged needles named after butterflies.


I carry a book, but mostly I don’t read, mostly I stare at spots on the wall or try to nap. There’s a piece by a famous artist, whose work my husband recognizes, that hangs from the ceiling, a giant mobile that looks like an infant’s entertainment. I try to stare at that but feel insulted.


The nurses are kind, they see people like us every day, but sometimes, their attempts at humor fall flat. My nurse jokes about how good I look, how healthy, and then, giggling, needle going in — the first of three attempts — admits he’s about to make me sick again.


My veins retreat.


My veins flip out.


Finally, he’s successful. “Got you,” he says.


¤


My mom taught government and civics classes to kids at Centennial High School in Compton for two decades before she taught English and literature to teenagers in Lynwood. She was interested in politics, history, and other cultures, and kept a globe on her dresser. When she got sick and bought a wig, they sent her home with a thick brown bob and a Styrofoam head that she promptly threw away. At night, she’d position the wig on top of the globe. I remember seeing it there, balanced, that shiny bob — the whole world where her face would be in the morning.


Three weeks ago, at my first treatment, a woman showed up with a clipboard to list every possible side effect. “I know,” I said, jaw clenched, trying to smile. “I know,” I told her. Even though I’d rejected chemo class or maybe because I’d rejected chemo class, I’d been given the list multiple times from multiple sources. Early on, after the doctor’s appointment where I was told about my concerning pathology and diagnosed, I was handed a pamphlet. A chemo nurse called a few days later and went over the unpleasant possibilities one by one. Friends listed what family members went through and I had my own memories of what my mom had endured. By the time the woman stood in front of me with the clipboard, I almost refused to listen, but none of it was her fault and she had a job to do. “Bone pain, nerve pain, stomach pain,” she said. “Constipation and diarrhea.”


“How can you have both?” I said.


“You’ll have one and then the other.”


“Lisa knows all this,” my husband said.


Finally, the woman said her goodbyes. She took a few steps away before turning back to me. “Oh,” she said, clipboard at her thigh, “and your fingernails might turn black.”


“I keep them painted,” I said wearily.


¤


My mom wanted me to look at her tumor.


It was November, 1992, the Monday before the presidential election.


We were standing in her bedroom and she wanted me to see.


When she asked me to look, I assumed she meant feel.


I assumed she’d search her breast with the pads of her fingers, re-find a small growth, and then reach over, pick up my wrist and guide my fingers to do the same.


I was 29 and she was 54.


I shook my head.


But my mom insisted — the way she’d insist in the morning that we stop at the Olympic Pool across the street, our polling place, before her surgery. She was voting — and so was I, she said. In their months of campaigning, Bill Clinton and Al Gore had transfixed her. My mom had a master’s degree in political science, was astute and informed, but she was not above crushing on the two of them, men she said looked like movie stars.


She unbuttoned her blouse, slipped it over her shoulders, and stood in front of me in just her bra and black stretchy pants. The bra was both pretty and sturdy, lacy with a thick band across the back, a bra with lots of support. My mother notoriously searched for sales, but never when it came to bras. High-quality bras were important for big-breasted women like us, she’d say.


Before I had breasts, when their size was just her prediction, I’d accompany her to department stores, where I’d sit in the corner of the dressing room while she went through the tangled bundle she’d carried inside. She’d painstakingly try on each one, snapping it in the front, then twisting it around. She’d lift her breasts into the cups and ask for my opinion. I’d start out generous, an eager audience, but several bras in, I’d turn cranky.


“Who cares about what bra you wear? No one sees it,” I’d finally say.


“A good bra is an investment,” she’d say. “A good bra impacts the way clothes hang on your body — can make a cheap blouse wear like an expensive blouse.”


“Pretty bra,” I said the night before the election.


“It’s a Vanity Fair,” she said, reaching around her back to fiddle with the hooks.


“I don’t want to see,” I said.


She gave up on the hooks and let her hands fall to her thighs. “You know, if I were still going to the Elysium, one of my friends there would have noticed this,” she said. The Elysium was a nudist camp in Topanga Canyon, a place my mom and previous stepfather frequented in the late ’70s — a place and a man she hadn’t mentioned in over a decade.


She didn’t mention my previous stepfather, but in my twenties, I thought of him often. He had studied psychology with an emphasis on human sexuality at the college near our home — the same college where I’d become, long after his absence and her death, an English professor. He planned on becoming a sex therapist, studied with Hartman and Fithian, a pair of prominent researchers who were thought of as the Masters and Johnson of the West Coast. He wanted to help people, he said. He wanted couples to connect. He was the first feminist I ever met who announced himself as such.


I was hit by a car on my way to first grade, when I was six. I was badly injured — lost my spleen, and weeks into my hospital stay, my liver abscessed. The damage to my left leg was an ongoing ordeal. I’d wear casts and crutches and braces, would undergo surgery after surgery, for nearly a decade. At 14, right before I started high school, a new doctor would perform a final operation that would enable me to walk with minimal intervention.


My stepfather entered our lives because his close friend answered an ad my mom had posted all over that college campus. My mom offered housing, access to the casita in our backyard and our home’s kitchen, to a student willing to drive her seven-year-old daughter to school.


My future stepfather was in his late twenties and my mom was in her early thirties. The accident was still fresh, my cast still clean and white, and my stepfather was just my mom’s new boyfriend when he invited me to be interviewed in front of his Speech class. I was seven years old, but taken seriously during that interview, admired by adults for what I’d been through and what I didn’t know was ahead of me. He asked questions in front of an audience of his rapt peers: What was it like for me, how would I move and move on after the accident, what was it like to have survived?


It was the ’70s. My future stepfather considered himself a modern man and an intellectual. There were books on our coffee table: Anatomy of an Orgasm and a poetry collection called There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves. Friends from the nudist camp came to dinner and thankfully kept their clothes on. I remember a woman’s black T-shirt, tiny words stitched in white: the word “Fuck” on the front and “You” on the back.


My stepfather discussed women’s rights and the importance of my growing up and becoming assertive; it was an assertiveness I’d call upon and would need later to protect myself — from him.


But my mom was long past talking about my stepfather. She was nearing the end of a relationship with someone else, a man she seemed to love who didn’t love her back, a man who’d disappear before her first treatment. It would be just the two of us, something I believe we both knew that night before her surgery — and looking at her tumor was just the beginning.


“One of my friends at the Elysium would have noticed it,” she said again.


“Wait, what?” I said.


“People looked at me there,” she said. “Someone would have seen it — and maybe saved me.”


By the time you’re depending on your fellow nudists to spot your tumor from across the grassy knoll, it’s too late to be saved, I was thinking, horrified. “You’re saying it’s visible?”


“Yes,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt though.”


“Not yet,” I said, which is the first of many times that I’d respond with those two words when she asked me about cancer and pain.


My mom maneuvered her hands behind her back again, successfully unclasping that good bra, and set her breasts free. She tossed the bra to the bed and turned to me, her shoulders back, breasts hanging, and there it was: an obvious bulb under my mother’s bluish skin, an insisting, bulging thing. I thought about mammograms, how decades earlier my third-grade teacher informed us that fancy new X-rays were finding tumors the size of peas, small and invisible. Early detection meant possible cures, my teacher assured us. I had told myself that my mother’s tumor was pea-sized. What about late detection? I wondered. What about waiting until the tumor pulls the skin taut?


I’d seen enough. “Cover up,” I said gently.


¤


The line coming out of the Olympic Pool polling place was long and swirling out the front door and into the parking lot. I suggested we go right to the hospital, but my mom was adamant about our civic duty. A lifelong and enthusiastic Democrat, she was seemingly more interested in Clinton’s projected win than she was in her recent diagnosis. It didn’t matter that we had to drive from Long Beach to Los Angeles in unpredictable traffic and surgeons do not wait — what mattered was her vote for Bill, as she called him.


I followed her up the sidewalk, complaining, saying again that we should skip voting altogether and head up to L.A. “They’ll win without us,” I said. I was a worried daughter, thinking about priorities, but she was prioritizing too — a choice I wouldn’t fully understand until 25 years later, after my own surgery, diagnosis, and treatment, which would coincide with Donald Trump’s first year as president, when, at my lowest moments, I’d be unable to separate my private disease from our country’s sickness. I’d lie on the couch in a kind of chemo fog with the feeling that I was watching myself, hovering above my body, dead already, while at the same time very much alive and watching the news, hours and hours of the news, eating pineapple or my husband’s poached eggs, and listening to each awful thing Trump said. I’d fear both of them: the cancer happening in my most private of spaces, my ovaries, and the latter, our new president, the public horror show.


¤


Despite my mom’s upcoming mastectomy, she was giddy and upbeat in the parking lot. I stopped at the back of the line, but she continued walking, heading towards the entrance, saying hello and good morning to the patient citizens. Finally, when she was at the front and about to engage, I rushed up to see and maybe stop whatever she was about to do.


“I’m on my way to my mastectomy,” she said, cheerfully. “Can my daughter and I cut in front?”


The people were awkward, maybe sorry for her, maybe amused by her boldness, ushering us ahead. “Go ahead,” someone kindly said.


My mom was thankful.


I followed her through the big glass doors and into the building.


I stepped into the booth next to her booth.


We smiled at each other before pulling our curtains closed.


And we voted.


¤


Trump, campaigning in 2015, was only a laughable threat, an impossibility, and the ache in my belly didn’t yet exist, or perhaps it was faint, an echo, a twinge I was able to ignore. My husband and I, in the middle of a small remodel, were having our old closets expanded and adding storage. We bought a new sliding glass door, one that didn’t have the gray, unreachable streaks we’d lived with for years. We slept on couches in the living room for weeks, and during our waking hours, men in heavy boots came and went with their drills and machinery. The men were kind-faced and polite, greeting us in the morning, but once in the back of the house they were necessarily brutal, pounding and tearing things down. They’d emerge from the hallway with glistening faces, carrying chunks of our home on their shoulders.


From the television, Trump was calling immigrants rapists and I muted him mid-sentence.


Months later, he’d win the election and I’d be diagnosed.


¤


My mom insisted on being treated at Cedars-Sinai because it was where famous people went, and she believed the famous were treated better and that they survived. While she was in surgery, I waited with my brother in the hospital lobby. Audrey Hepburn was on the same floor, undergoing surgery too, for a colon cancer that would soon, despite her fame, kill her. Flowers arrived every few minutes, huge bouquets for Ms. Hepburn. I remember lilies and irises and roses — the waiting room where we’d get our harsh news filling with sweetness.


When the surgeon appeared, my brother and I stood up to greet him. My brother was in his early thirties; newly married and his wife newly pregnant, he was a new lawyer, a new homeowner, a new adult. Six months earlier, I’d received my MFA in poetry and fiction from a school I couldn’t afford in New York and had come back to California, full of debt, to live with my mom in her apartment on the beach. I had just returned from the MacDowell Colony, a generous, beautiful place on the East Coast in the woods, where I was supposed to be writing a novel but was instead taking phone calls from my mom about the cyst. This was pre–cell phone, and I remember the phone booths at MacDowell were feet away from the pool table. I watched the writers and visual artists and composers aim their cue sticks and eye their pockets while I received updates about the cyst that wasn’t a cyst after all.


The surgeon stood in front of us. Maybe he was sweating. Maybe he was holding his mask in his hands. He told us that what he removed from our mother’s body was the biggest breast tumor he’d ever seen, and I immediately broke into big, heaving sobs. Even some of those women with little tiny pea tumors die, I remember thinking. And here was where it started, my anticipatory grief — what seemed like an overly dramatic reaction, indulgent, an embarrassment to my brother, who was not an untreated depressive, who stayed composed like the adult he was and listened to what the doctor said next.


Hours later, we stood by our mom’s bedside as she was coming out of anesthesia. I wondered if it was possible to spin the doctor’s words about the enormous tumor into the familiar “they got it all” pronouncement because in a sense they did, get it all — at least all of it they could see. But I needn’t have worried because that’s not what she was interested in. She opened her eyes, looked around the recovery room, and situated herself. “Did Bill win?” she asked.


“Yes,” I said. “Bill won,” I told her.


¤


There’s a television tilted from the hospital ceiling and Trump’s talking about North Korea and Kim Jong-un, calling him Little Rocket Man — this is before they’ve fallen in love, as he’ll weirdly say later. I glance at the chemo dripping from the IV bag, then stare at the TV. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where George decides to do his two favorite things at the same time — have sex while eating a corned beef sandwich — and I think that what I’m doing at this very moment, these two things at once, is perhaps my very idea of hell.


¤


I behaved badly on freeways, the two of us trapped in the car. I’d make her admit her parenting mistakes when she was at her weakest, three days post-chemo, tired and sweaty.


My previous stepfather brought his sex studies home in ways that now seemed appalling, and I needed her to see it and agree. He talked too much about sexuality to me, a child. As a nudist, dissatisfied with just the weekend jaunts to the Elysium, he’d periodically walk the halls of our suburban home — his naked body always, to me, a surprise.


I needed my mom to acknowledge these facts, but she resisted.


I pushed.


I talked about him with the two of us trapped in traffic.


“Admit you didn’t protect me from him,” I screamed at her. “I had to protect myself,” I said, sobbing.


“I was a terrible mother,” she said — a sweeping, inaccurate blanket of a statement.


Until finally: “You’re right,” she screamed, hot-flashing and pulling off her wig, letting it sit there in her lap while I listed her worst mistakes.


“You better hope you never get this,” she said.


¤


I was diagnosed at the exact same age my mother was diagnosed and I mourned her all over again. Weeks earlier, in pre-op, the feelings knocked me to my knees. I knelt next to the bed until the anesthesiologist pulled the curtain back and interrupted my sobs.


“Hi,” she said. “I’m your drug dealer and bartender.”


I looked up at her from the floor, embarrassed.


She lent me a hand, helping me to my feet. “Nice nail polish,” she said.


“Gel,” I told her through my tears. “Lasts forever.”


 ¤


Two and a half years after her mastectomy, just three months before the cancer came roaring back, my mom underwent reconstructive surgery. The odds that the cancer would return before she fully recovered were high, so I’d discouraged the surgery itself and we had another memorable fight on the freeway on the way to it.


It was nearly midnight when the doctor called and told me that the breast he’d fashioned out of my mom’s little belly looked great, she looked great, but there was one problem. Tissue death is a possibility — necrosis, he said. We need to stave off complete rejection, he told me.


I didn’t understand and asked him to clarify.


“Your mom’s body is rejecting the new breast — the blood’s not making its way through.” And then he asked my permission to apply medicinal leeches to the area. “To bring up the blood,” he said.


“Oh god,” I said.


“Bugs?” I said.


“We need to bring up the blood,” he repeated.


“Okay, yes,” I said.


Here’s what I know now: the condition is called venous congestion, and leeches are sometimes used when a person loses a finger or toe, and after cosmetic surgeries go awry, that at the time of my mom’s reconstruction, the worms cost about seven dollars apiece, that they’re known as Hirudo medicinalis, and that they were, hundreds of years ago, used for nearly every ailment, including laryngitis.


In the morning, I stood by her hospital bed and watched her sleep. In addition to the expected vest of gauze, there was a bandage on her neck. I’m not sure if I witnessed the removal of the bandage but I was there, at some point, looking down at the hickey, a fat reddish bruise a couple inches below her ear. During the night, an impatient leech crawled away from the new breast, escaped from under the gauze, and made his way up my mother’s body, her clavicle a bridge to what he really wanted, which was her neck — original skin, generous flesh — what else would eat her, how would her body give way and give up, how soon she’d be devoured whole.


¤


We’re exposed and in danger. Our blood counts are low, our immune systems compromised. Walking a block leaves us winded and we’re told to fear any small germ. We ask for a pillow, a blanket for our feet. We don’t carry helmets or fatigue jackets, but fatigue follows us everywhere. Bananas and little cups of apple juice beckon from the nurses’ station.


They fill us with drugs that make us sleepy and drugs to counteract that sleepiness. The steroids make us ravenous and induce a false sense of strength. Until the drugs wear off, we almost feel like generals.


I could run a marathon; I could sleep for months.


We think about our grim or positive prognosis, the numbers and stats spinning around in our heads. We carry our fear and optimism, and we flutter back and forth between the two like a moth.


We wonder if we’ll be here long enough to see our nephews marry or a real war end.


Travel we’ve postponed now feels urgent, but plans are somehow arrogant.


My husband sits in the chair next to my chemo cot and tries to write poems while I stare at his moving fingers on the keyboard. I love him more than I thought possible. We wear matching bandanas and look like two bikers who don’t bike. Earlier my nurse mistook my husband for the patient and then finally turned and caught my snarl.


My mom didn’t ask me to go with her to chemo, but I was there at her apartment, waiting for her when she returned. It terrified me, chemotherapy’s ceremony — the frightening majesty of it, its reputation, the pomp, the scary fuss. She went alone or my uncle took her, and once, even my dad, her ex-husband of two and a half decades, drove her to Los Angeles and sat with her. I wonder what they talked about, the two of them, what they said to one another for all those hours.


Unlike cowardly me, my husband insists on coming to every session. He’s designed his teaching schedule in order to do so. We’ve been here since morning and won’t be home until just before midnight.


My husband stops typing.


He closes his laptop.


He stands up and sighs.


He walks toward me, crawls into the bed and curls up, face in my neck.


And there she is again, the woman in slippers with the ice cap on her head, the white band melting, thinner each time I see it. She’s moving slowly, one foot in front of the other, shuffling, pulling her IV pole towards the bathroom, where she’ll see the sign and comply, dutiful, or she won’t, maybe she’ll only flush once and say fuck it, or maybe she’ll flush once, then twice, and a third time for good measure — above and beyond, the perfect soldier.


¤


Lisa Glatt is the author of the novels The Nakeds and A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, a collection of short stories, The Apple’s Bruise, and two books of poetry, Shelter and Monsters and Other Lovers. Lisa teaches at California State University, Long Beach, and is married to writer David Hernandez.


¤


Featured image: “Cedar Sinai HDR-ness” by Sodanie Chea licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped and color-adjusted.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Glatt is the author of the novels The Nakeds and A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, a collection of short stories, The Apple’s Bruise, and two books of poetry, Shelter and Monsters and Other Lovers. Lisa teaches at California State University, Long Beach, and is married to writer David Hernandez.

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