Serving Others with Compassionate Detachment


I have been volunteering at the infusion center almost three years now. I lost count of how many patients I’ve seen come and go through those doors; some died, some got better and there are many whom I have no idea what happened to them. Most patients promise to stay in touch but don’t. I’m guessing many of them want to get back to their lives and forget they ever had cancer. I don’t blame them, but I’m different. Cancer changed my life forever. There is no going back. My illness caused me to have a complete paradigm shift. It gave me a whole new sense of purpose. I volunteer and share my story to whomever will listen, in order to pay-it-forward. I live so others may also. Mine is a story they need to hear. The best place for me to do that (besides the pages of this blog) is in the infusion center.

Studying Buddhism and following its teachings the best I can, helps keep me going back into the battlefield (infusion) knowing that the patients I visit with today may not return ever again. A patient I sat with for over a year came looking for me a couple weeks ago. It was on a Wednesday but I couldn’t talk with him because I was in the middle of doing something else. I thought he was there for an appointment and I would find him later, but I never did. No one knew where he went. I found out the following Monday that he went home and died Saturday.

One of the main teachings of Buddhism is impermanence. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing. I read a quote somewhere recently that we are all just guests on this beautiful planet. That is so true. Another Buddhist teaching is about detachment. Becoming attached to something and losing it causes suffering. In order to protect myself from suffering, I taught myself to become friends with my patients without getting attached to them, knowing that even if they survive their cancer, there will come a time when I won’t see them again.

Someone else told me years ago that we come into each others lives as; a reason, a season and a lifetime. I see myself as “a reason.” My purpose is to help patients get through their infusion session and be a positive force. We talk about all kinds of things and sometimes when they are having a tough time, I ask them questions to get them reminiscing about happier days. My hope is to get their minds off cancer if only for a few minutes.

I didn’t get any real training when I started my volunteer job. Most of what I learned was through my own experience as a patient and talking with other volunteers. Working in an environment where there are many sick people can be tough on anyone. I don’t know how doctors and nurses do it, especially working in emergency rooms.  Many nurses I work with are religious. Their faith helps them do their job. My Buddhist practice is what works for me.



Cancer Brings Out the Freaks



People are human and as humans we say and do things that are inappropriate sometimes, especially when we are in uncomfortable situations. Telling people you have cancer can bring out the best in some and the worst in others. I lost some friends when they found out and gained a couple. Let’s be honest, we don’t like talking about death, or even thinking about it (especially our own). When most people hear the c-word, they think death.

I think the reason some people disappear from our lives when we have cancer is because it freaks them out. If I can get cancer (a fabulous looking, vibrant fifty something) then it might happen to them. I’ve heard of spouses divorcing their so-called “to-death-do-us-part” loved ones, within a few months or even weeks of a diagnosis. I was lucky, mine stuck around, but I’m sure there were plenty of times he questioned his decision. Sick people are sick and there are times its hard to be around them. That includes me.

Having cancer is like riding a roller coaster, especially when it comes to emotions. The patient’s support group, be they family or friends are only along for the ride. That’s no excuse to act stupid though.

I got a phone call from Glenda, who I hadn’t seen in at least fifteen years, within a week of my diagnosis. She wasted no time to tell me that our mutual friend, Susan, called her when she found out, via my son’s Face Book page, that I had terminal cancer. Glenda said that she and Susan cried for hours over the news, and that Susan was going through all the photos she had of me, and that she couldn’t find a single “normal” picture (I like to make faces) she could use for the memorial. “Whose memorial?” I asked. Susan replied (not skipping a beat), “Yours of course!” “Hello! I’m not dead! Thank you very much!” That is what my supportive friend sounded like.

I was grocery shopping a year after my treatment ended and bumped into an acquaintance in the produce department. I went up to him to say hello and when he looked at me, he exclaimed, “I heard you died!”  and he sounded pissed off that I wasn’t! I was taken back by his statement at first, but then, I decided not to be upset, “I am dead. I am haunting you.”  Then I walked away. Sometimes you can’t fix stupid.

Another thing you have to watch out for are the “supportive” ones who come over to give your family a break but are really there to help themselves to your “pain killers.” One day my son discovered that a lot of my pain meds were missing from their prescription bottle. I was on some heavy duty opiates. At first he thought I got into them and took extra pills without his knowledge. My prescription pills were on the kitchen counter alongside the schedule he made, to make sure I took them on time. Looking back, I see how it can be tempting for someone who might have a “substance” abuse issue. I just didn’t know at the time.

The next time she came to relieve my son, we hid the pills and when I left the room to use the bathroom, she asked where the pills went. She wasn’t very smart about it. I knew then that she was the thief. I wondered how I would deal with her since I found out she couldn’t be trusted. It turns out, she called the next day to say she no longer had time to help out, so that problem was solved.

I ended up finding my biggest support coming cancer survivors online, although I stayed away from chat rooms. They were filled with gloom and doom. Personal blogs are still the best for me because they usually are filled with information that helps me deal with my disease.  I know it’s impersonal but, for me it works. Everyone has to find what works for them. I also decided to not take what people said personally. Cancer makes people say stupid things and act weird. That’s their shit, not mine.

Be well,