Peace comes to cancer survivor who regifts ‘hope’

Steven Petrow

“I can’t be late tonight,” I murmur to myself as I dash out of the Rockefeller Center skyscraper where I work, running smack dab into an army of holiday tourists, all visiting the famous Christmas tree. Weaving through the crowd, I know I have to be nimble if I want to stay on schedule. “Rush, rush, rush,” I whisper under my breath. I have an appointment to keep (and, with any luck, a gift to deliver).

Arriving at my Upper East Side destination, I’m surprised – as I always am – to see my reflection in the smoky-dark glass sliding doors and then, etched in the glass, glimpse the name of the building: the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. With a deliberate step forward, I cross the threshold of the holiday-bedecked hospital entryway – known to patients and staff simply as “Memorial.”

This year it’s decked out in a sea of crimson and white poinsettias; alas, it’s impossible to escape the holiday muzak.

An unexpected gift

My history with Memorial goes back thirteen years to 1984, when I entered the hospital for the first time. Then, I was 26 and just diagnosed with testicular cancer. Assigned to room 821 to await surgery, I began complaining right away: “I can’t possibly sleep on these cotton/poly sheets,” I told the nurse doing my intake, “How come no one suggested I bring my own down-filled pillows?” Of course, she saw my complaints for what they really were – fear – and touching me lightly on the arm, said: “Save your strength for the things that will really matter. ... And by the way, they’re not cotton/poly sheets; they’re 100% polyester.”

Later that night, a stranger, a tall, dark man wearing a pale blue coat, visited me in my room. I don’t recall much of what he said, something about having been a patient here once and something about having been my age. After about 10 minutes I looked up at him and said: “Oh, so you’re a cancer survivor. Cool.” He nodded yes and then left me a precious gift – hope – that I’ve carried with me ever since.

Taming fear

Entering “Memorial” that cold Tuesday night thirteen Decembers later, I wasn’t the guy in the bed facing his mortality. This time, I was the guy in the blue coat.

My fellow volunteers and I in the “Patient to Patient Program” are part of the world’s lousiest match game: breast-cancer survivors paired with breast-cancer patients; prostate with prostate. ... Our goal is simple – to help those newly diagnosed talk about their fears.

Every Tuesday, as I had done for the past year, I put my blue coat on and take an elevator to the eighth floor, where I get my marching orders from the head social worker. As usual, it’s a madhouse up there, with doctors, nurses, and aides all to-ing and fro-ing.

Among the patients I’m visiting this evening is a middle-aged dad; I’ll call him Peter. In addition to having “my” cancer, Peter is in my old room. Walking through the doorway zaps me right out of the present and back to 1984. During my treatment, I so feared my fear that merely entering the hospital would make me gag. It wasn’t long before I knew exactly how many steps it was to the nearest restroom, where I could puke in private.

Now I’ve come to an understanding with my cancer fear. I’ve gotten kind of personal with it, going so far as to name it “Maxxx” – with three x’s, because he’s an X-rated fear. Each week, when I put on my blue coat, Maxxx and I say hello to each other – a nodding acknowledgment that we’re both still around.

Regifting hope

Once I enter room 821, Maxx has to step aside because this moment is about Peter. “My name is Steven,” I say to Peter, who has only wisps of hair. I tell him that I’m a volunteer. I keep it short. We’re instructed not to say the word “cancer,” because you never know what patients actually understand about their disease.

Peter beckons me to sit, but he continues to watch television.

I look at the screen and I look at him.

I look at the screen and I look at him.

I guess he’s in no rush. And, you know what, finally, neither am I. With the holiday frenzy outside – and the hospital frenzy all about us – neither am I. We just sit there side by side looking at the TV screen.

All is calm; all is bright in room 821.

Finally, Peter starts to chat. It’s pretty clear he knows what’s wrong with him. Suddenly, he’s really paying attention and he looks up at me, his eyes focused on my upper body—but especially my hair. It’s as if all the pieces have suddenly come into focus and he asks, incredulously: “You’re a cancer survivor?”

“Yes, I am,” I say to him, remembering the tall dark stranger who presented himself to me – and the gift he left with me with years ago. And just like that I am transformed into a gift called Hope. And that is one thing nobody ever minds receiving, even if it’s a regift.

Giving and receiving

The truth is, however, that every patient I talk during the years I volunteered also gives me a gift. On the following Tuesday after seeing Peter, I was visiting a woman I’ll call Maryann who was struggling with a very difficult case of cancer of the appendix. (She got me in the match game because there were no surviving matches for her.)

Describing how on her first day home post-surgery, fecal matter had begun to leak from her navel, she asked me, “Were you ever afraid during your treatment?”

I answered “yes.”

Then she asked me what I had been afraid of, and what that fear felt like.

I told her in great detail, ending by explaining the worst of it: How, despite having a supportive village of friends and family, I still felt utterly alone. Then, Maryann reached out and grasped my hand.

There we were in that big cancer hospital holding hands and crying together. She thanked me, but I especially thanked her for showing me her courage and reminding me of mine. More than anything, this is what struck me: In a hospital so busy, in a season where it can be so difficult to reach out and touch someone, we had done just that.

Hope delivered

Now it was time for me to leave. As I always did, I took the elevator down to the main floor. I shed my blue coat and sat down in the lobby to silently recite the Lord’s Prayer. And then in the hospital’s holiday muzak mash-up, I heard Judy Garland’s voice singing…

Someday soon, we all will be together

If the fates allow

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow

So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Moments later, I am walking out onto the wide expanse of York Avenue when I see my reflection again in the sliding glass doors. I look, but Maxxx is nowhere to be seen. I know he’ll be waiting to greet me here the following week. But for now, with my gift delivered, I’m going home – with Hope.

Steven Petrow of Hillsborough writes the “Civil Behavior” column for The New York Times.