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Column: Look What I Saw, Really

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Kenneth B. Lourie

A male patient sitting directly across from me being infused with his unique chemotherapy cocktail, a bit too far for a conversation, but certainly close enough for a knowing/empathetic glance. He didn’t look too well; jaundice in the face, a baseball cap covering up a chemotherapy-affected hair line (as I can similarly attest) and a thin physique exuding the type of stress commonly found in cancer patients being infused. Dressed casually in blue jeans and a long sleeve cotton shirt; with his sneakers pointing toward the ceiling resting on the elevated foot support of the Barcalounger as the I.V. continues its drip. Accompanied by his wife, as I overheard her described, sitting supportively to his left.

Though I had never seen this man during my three-plus years of regular (every month, basically) infusions, he looked eerily familiar, or at least his circumstances and appearance did. The more I thought about it, more so after I had left the facility, the more obvious it became: he looked like me, or rather, I looked like him. It wasn’t quite like looking in the mirror, but it was a bit like seeing the truth (of my appearance). Whatever I thought I looked like (see 3/7/2012 column titled “Look What She Saw, Really”) or denied what I actually looked like, it became ever more apparent and clear the longer the two of us sat across from one another. Then the clincher: I found out from my oncology nurse that this man and I were approximately the same age. Which was extremely distressing because, by looking at his gaunt and frail appearance, I would have guessed that he was much older than me. Finding out that we were close in age was in fact was unsettling. Unsettling because this revelation came on top of my observation that he and I looked similar. And if I thought he looked much older than me, then maybe I too looked much older – and less healthy than I thought I did. If so, then maybe the woman in the supermarket whom I wrote about in my March 7th column had every reason to stare at me the way she did that day.

Seeing my fellow patient for what he and I apparently are, was not exactly like seeing a ghost, but it wasn’t like seeing George Clooney, either. Whatever I think in my head about how I feel/how I look; presumably, if looks could kill, I’d be dead already. And since I don’t want, nor think that I am dead already, considering now that my appearance might actually reflect the severity of my underlying diagnosis – in spite of how I think I feel and in spite of how people say I look, would be (A) news to me and (B) news that isn’t very good.

The question is, whether it’s news with which I can live. I have always tried to take this cancer diagnosis in stride and not let it effect my demeanor. Part of that strategy has involved a bit of denial to the seriousness/inevitability of it all. Seeing this fellow cancer patient sitting across from me, however, looking so familiar – and similar to me, caused not my life to pass before me, but rather my death. It’s not what I had in mind when I went to the Center that day and it’s rarely how I want to begin my day. Nevertheless, his image and its reality is in my head now. No wonder I felt the need to write about it.