Visiting the Sick

You’d have no trouble finding me in the treatment area of Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center. Even from a distance, mine is the little roomlet that rings with soft laughter and the sound of — well, yes — a party going on.

How dare I have fun during chemotherapy? It’s not that I look forward to seven hours of treatment. But with four of six rounds behind me, I no longer feel I’m heading into an abyss.

I load up my suitcase with fresh flowers, pretzels stuffed with peanut butter (nurses love them), chocolate-covered peanut butter cups (Leslie, my friend from college, loves them), Raisinettes (I love them). As I pack I’m thrilled that the whole day’s dance card is filled. I will not be left alone.

My small room looks just like any other, with a bed, three chairs, a television and videoplayer. But it’s my friends that make the experience one of pleasure and healing.

Yes, you’re right, I’m heading down my favorite river: Denial. I’m letting my friends distract me from the fact that I have lung cancer for which the word "cure" does not exist.

Certainly I know from A to Z what a typical chemo day brings: large doses of anxiety over whether my white-blood-cell count will be high enough to qualify me for treatment, coupled with large doses of Zofran, the high-octane anti-nausea drug that makes Carboplatin and Taxol tolerable. I will sit until past sunset with my portacath plugged like I’m some electric coffee pot into an IV drip filled with poison trying to kill the bad cells without killing me.

But why should I dwell upon such puny details when I know that Diane, a romance writer and swell raconteur, is driving me to my CAT scan? Leslie is bringing lunch. And before Jill, the Cedars art therapist, has a chance to take out her brushes, I will see Cynthia, Susan, Rona, Marilyn, Marika or any number of surprise guests. Soon enough, we’ll be laughing and talking as if I weren’t as bald as a cue ball and the nurse wasn’t monitoring my blood pressure every 15 minutes. Yes, even in chemotherapy a girl can still have fun.

This is not the attitude I started with. My initial bias was to tough it out alone, to attend my own funeral, working grimly through long months of my illness with my trusty laptop; to let one friend sit with me for the long day to watch "Silence of the Lambs."

But even if I didn’t have Chemo Brain incapable of focus, that scenario does not fit me. And it does not adequately fulfill the Jewish principle of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick.

Bikkur cholim is designed as a community effort, a way in which we all, sick and well, face mortality together. The Talmud states that a person who visits the sick removes one-sixtieth of the illness. Either Cynthia could visit me 60 times or 60 people can visit me once, which is what happened during my lung surgery when intensive care was filled to overflowing. It drove my surgeon crazy, but soon I was feeling fine.

I’ve learned that my illness is not mine alone, after all. It has caused my terrified friends and fellows to schedule long-overdue physicals, begin exercising and get chest x-rays. Who knows, maybe I’ll save their lives, just as they, through their visits, are saving mine.

And yes, I do believe that visiting, like prayer, is saving my life. The story is told of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, a great healer. One day Ben Zakkai became ill. He was visited by Rabbi Hanina, who held out his hand. Ben Zakkai took the hand and stood up. Why couldn’t Ben Zakkai stand up by himself? Because a prisoner cannot free himself from prison, notes the Talmud, especially from the prison of fear, which, along with travel and sin, are the three elements that destroy a person’s health.

That’s why, as Rambam explains, every sick person needs visitors, except those suffering intestinal disease (gas embarrasses the patient) or headaches (conversation creates a racket).

I know people can get through chemo alone. I’ve heard about the lawyer with the laptop whose practice never missed a beat. She put no demands on anyone. But she gave no one the privilege of service, either. The rules of visiting are simple: stay upbeat. Avoid morbid gossip about, say, others who just died of lung cancer. Enemies and depressed people stay away.

During chemo no. 4 last month, the conversation rivaled the best soirée in town: it included the wisdom of the Bush administration, the problems of picking a middle school and college, the question of whether women need breasts after child-bearing, the value of Botox injections, memories of an affair with Warren Beatty (not mine), reviews of the best movies and theater shows, and advice on how to get a film produced in Hollywood.

Some of the best times of my life have happened during treatment. Imagine that.