Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Chemo room

Sarah Smith
Pike Road, Alabama, United States


Chemotherapy iv. National Cancer Institute. Photo Credit: Linda Bartlett

Cancer makes me glad I am fat. Mr. Weiss, two chairs down from Jack and me today, does not agree. Two months ago, Mr. Weiss tried to convince me of the importance of keeping in shape and maintaining a healthy weight. As though I did not know these things. He assumes there is no strength in my fat.

Mrs. Jenkins, supported by Nurse Jane, walks to her chair against the opposite wall and croaks through her cracked lips about how hard they used to work to get one of her veins. She laughs about it now, eternally pleasant. But she winces when they prick the port in her chest, every time. She is thin, has always been thin, like my grandmother. Now she is wasting away. But she smiles, greets her nearby comrades, and waves to those too far away to hear her pale voice. I smile for Jack and me and wave back. Eternally pleasant.

I wonder, would she fare better with more to lose? Would Grandma have?

Mr. Weiss’s infusion is done, and the machine starts to beep. It has done its job for today. The nurses unhook him, and Caroline, his daughter, lowers his feet and helps him up. He used to shoo her away. Now he leans on her. She manages him okay, better than she would have when he started. When he is settled in his wheelchair, he tilts his head briefly to Mrs. Jenkins, who smiles back, and closes his eyes. Caroline and I nod farewell to each other as she wheels her father past Jack and me.

A man who reminds me of Dad jokes with the nurses. He is new — this is just his third day. Thick, stout, still ready to fight. Maybe he has enough in him to feed the treatment. The churn and pump of the IV have not yet filled him with life-affirming poison. He smiles, and soon sleeps.

Jack is also asleep. In the beginning, he did not like to sleep here, but the discomfort of sleeping with forty-nine strangers has been replaced by the discomfort of treatment. His bones are tired. So, he sleeps.

With one eye and one ear always on Jack, I watch this chemo family. Mrs. Sanchez, across from Mrs. Jenkins, has the same rare brain cancer that took my aunt. Three rows over, Mr. Turner bears my uncle’s nose cancer. Grandma’s lung cancer sits next to him.

They are all here. I checked. Nose, lung, breast, brain, pancreas, stomach. My family.

I look down and try to picture my insides. What is already growing uncontrollably? Will it be the lungs? I used to smoke. Do I get credit — a stay of execution — for quitting? Maybe the breast — I can cut it off and think I am done. Something more sinister perhaps: stomach, pancreas, liver.

Last Thanksgiving, we cousins all wondered about what would take us. So many ways to go, but cancer is our fear, our fight. Our fate. We joked about starting a pool and placing bets. The fatties all gave each other high-fives. So did the health nuts who think they can fight indefinitely.

We all think we can feed the monster and survive.

Across from Mr. Weiss’s empty chair, Mr. Hayward coughs. He is also new here, and old. He was already broken when he arrived. No one comes with him, sits with him. He never speaks, only nods or shakes his head. He coughs again and jerks in his chair. Nurse Jane hears him and walks over.

On the other side of the room is a glass door, but I cannot quite see through it. It looks like a door to the outside, but I see only an empty fire extinguisher box and shade that looks like a tree at deep dusk. It is noon, but there is no sun.

Nurse Jane is yelling, and Nurse Brittany rushes by. Jack’s eyes flutter open. No one breathes. Someone brings a wheelchair, and suddenly Mr. Hayward — poor, blue Mr. Hayward — is being wheeled away from his colleagues in cancer.

As they fly past, it is not Mr. Hayward in the chair anymore but my father — my father who survived the cancer, survived the treatment, who did not die, who waits for updates about Jack. It is always my father, and never my father.

They disappear around the corner. Jack’s IV machine beeps. It has done its job for today.



SARAH SMITH, a Texan transplanted in Alabama, began writing poetry in elementary school for no clearly defined reason. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Troy State University and recently graduated from Auburn University at Montgomery with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She plans to pursue her writing and editing interests for a time before she returns to school to work on her as-yet-undeclared master’s degree.


Winter 2019  |  Sections  |  Fiction

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