Life in the Cancer Treatment Cloister

A friend who has been through cancer surgery and the grueling cure wrote to say it was as isolating as entering a black hole: “Although people were wonderful and helpful, it’s hard to communicate into a black hole.” I know exactly what he means. No matter how much everyone wants to help, no matter how much support and love and good wishes come our way–all of which we very much appreciate–we’re the ones going through the experience. We’re in the metaphorical black hole of cancer treatment. Our lives are totally focused on managing the chemo medication and its side effects, and the radiation blasts to his brain and their side effects. Our sole job right now is to keep Richard healthy so that this treatment can go on and work its magic. Outside, the world goes on without us. It’s odd, and our friend was right about how isolating it is.


It’s also oddly restful, as if we’re living in a cloister. Only this cloister is organized around brain cancer treatment, not any religious group. Over this first full week of Richard’s treatment, we’ve settled into a quiet routine. Richard wakes at about five a.m. to take his six capsules of temozolomide, the chemotherapy medicine, with 8 ounces of water to wash them down. Then he comes back to bed and we snuggle and snooze or talk quietly until about six-thirty, when we get up and begain our morning routine: yoga, breakfast, read the newspaper, and check email.

His radiation treatment is scheduled for the same time every day. It has been at one-fifteen, so our routine is been to walk to a cafe in a nearby research building at the medical center campus where we’re staying in the house for out-of-town patients. Richard gets coffee and a sticky bun, I get cocoa and sometimes a scone. I pull out my laptop and start my writing day; he usually reads an art history book. After an hour or so, we walk back to Fisher House, and I go to work on whatever writing is uppermost on my internal priority list. (Last week that was an article on home photovoltaic systems for Audubon Magazine.) Richard meditates (in the closet!), writes in his journal, and reads. 

After lunch, we walk over to the cancer center for Richard’s blast of radiation. When they call his name, he disappears through the double doors to his date with the radiation techs, the mask that holds his head immobile on the table, and the big machine. He returns looking a bit dazed, with the net-pattern of the mask still pressed into the bare skin of his head and face, giving him the look of some mahogany-skinned lizard.

We walk “home” to Fisher House, and then settle into a quiet afternoon of work, reading, and occasionally an outing to the world beyond the medical center campus. (The photo below is of an exceptionally artful pattern in the foam of my cocoa poured by the barrista at a local coffeehouse from this afternoon’s excursion.) Dinner is early, and we’re in bed by nine-thirty so we can get in a solid night’s sleep before it’s time for Richard to take his chemo drugs on an ultra-empty stomach.

It’s a quiet routine. And it seems to be working. After five days of radiation (25 more to go) and five days of chemo drugs (months of those to go), Richard’s feeling pretty good. He gets tired (that’s the radiation), he has some queasiness (that’s the chemo), and some days he struggles with his mood (most likely the chemo too, which includes mental confusion, anxiety, and depression among its side effects). But otherwise, he’s doing really well. And we’re both determined to keep him that way. 

The cloistered feeling is very interesting. It may come in part from the house where we’re staying, a lovely quiet place full of other cancer patients and their spouses/significant others, as well as families of out-of-town patients in the VA Hospital. We’re all here because of some health trauma, and we’re all focused on treatment. It may come from knowing the prognosis for Richard’s sort of tumor, which I’m not going to invoke here because he and I are determined that with his general good health, his strong spiritual practice, and the great care he’s getting he’ll beat the odds. That keen awareness of our mortality though certainly contributes to the feeling of being apart from the rest of the world. It may also come from the season. The nights are still growing longer and solstice is approaching, the time the sun “stands still” as if hesitating about whether to turn back toward the half of the year blessed by longer days, warmth, and abundant light. 


Whatever the cause, Richard and I are doing our best to take advantage of this cloistered time. We’re deepening our spiritual practices and giving careful thought to where we’re each going with our work. That examination resulted in a proposal for our first-ever collaborative project in response to an invitation for submissions for a show at Denver International Airport next year organized by Colorado Art Ranch. And yes, we’re even having fun, as in the photo above, which I snapped in the foyer of The Collection, a design showcase that carries Richard’s work, on a visit there this afternoon. 

“Smile,” I said, “Look like you’re having fun!” He does, doesn’t he?

From the brain cancer cloister, our thanks and blessings. We so appreciate your support.