Pro-life takes on new meaning in the cancer center

It’s not just bumper stickers and memes, protests and op-eds.

(Photo by National Cancer Institute/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — We sit outside the radiology wing of the cancer center. We are all waiting for our loved ones because we who are not patients aren’t allowed back there. Each patient must enter alone. Each one scans an ID card over a black box that sits next to the door’s entrance. Each time, the door clicks: “Open, Sesame.”

This phrase is from a tale in “One Thousand and One Nights.” In that story those magical words open the door of a cave in which 40 thieves have hidden a treasure.

In this story, it is just a click. No one knows what they will ultimately find behind that door.

A thin, stooped man with coffee-colored skin comes down the hall. He scans his card at the door as the woman with him takes a seat in the hall. A young woman wearing bright colors — a scarf on her head and a floral bouquet tattoo on her calf — exits from inside the same door a few minutes later. Her face wears the brightness of hope.

The chairs in the waiting area line a long wall of windows. Clouds like cotton balls float in a sky the color of a robin’s egg. Today is the summer solstice. It is the longest day of the year. Starting tomorrow, each day will be shorter than the one before it.

I dread the coming of winter.

From the window I see a woman sitting outside on a bench at the cancer center’s entrance. She was in the same spot the day before. She is waiting for a ride. Later she is gone, but I don’t see who has come for her.

The wall opposite the window is hung with paintings done by patients. They are amateurish in the most important sense of the word: They are done with heart — with love.

I pick up a brochure from a table nearby. It tells of services available to patients: social workers, rides to and from treatment, financial help, medicine, food.

A bus with the cancer center’s slogan emblazoned on the side pulls up to the entrance. The volunteer outside whom I’d passed earlier on my way in waits, ready to escort or wheel in any patient who needs her assistance.

A middle-aged woman who seems to have come alone shuffles toward the inner door and raises her card to the scanner. Click.

A Nightbirde quote at a cancer center. (Photo courtesy Karen Swallow Prior)

A Nightbirde quote at a cancer center. (Photo courtesy Karen Swallow Prior)

Next to the main door is another table with more brochures and a small whiteboard. The whiteboard has words by the singer known as Nightbirde. Nightbirde went viral in 2021 when Simon Cowell gave her the golden buzzer for her performance on “America’s Got Talent.” She had multiple bouts with cancer beginning in 2017. Before her “AGT” performance, the cancer had metastasized. Months after that Golden Buzzer moment, she had to withdraw from the competition because her health had declined so much. She died in early 2022.

The words on the sign are the ones she told the “AGT” judges after her performance. They read: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.”

I think of my friend, one of my oldest and dearest of friends, and how she (so young, too young!) received a cancer diagnosis just before the pandemic hit. Her treatment, surgery and recovery were all done in near isolation. It was so hard. But she is alive and well. I am grateful.

I think of a gentle, kind man I know who just landed his dream job earlier this year — only to learn days later that he has advanced cancer.

I think of the elderly man at the gym whose cancer has spread to his bones. We are there at the same time together sometimes, and we share the same trainer. He has recently stopped coming.

I think of so many other friends — one-breasted, no-breasted or otherwise here but not whole — who have fought this beast and won. So far.

A woman pushing a large and gleaming stainless-steel cart comes through the waiting area. The cart is overflowing with snacks: fruit, cheese, nuts, crackers, potato chips, chocolate. The woman offers the food to everyone waiting, patients and loved ones, alike. She, too, is a volunteer.

Who pays for these delicious snacks? I wonder as I reach for a packet of yellow-and-orange cheese. I haven’t had lunch. I am grateful.

I marvel at all the resources shown forth just on this one day. How much insurance, taxes, foundations and fundraisers must it take to offer all these things that are likely necessary for everyone here to some degree.

This is what it means to be pro-life, I think.

It’s not just bumper stickers and memes, protests and op-eds — although advocacy matters, too.

But it’s more than these. It’s money and policies, facilities and rides, nurses and doctors who work long hours, social workers and volunteers, artists and songwriters, too. And sometimes snacks.

It is Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

I have been waiting for about an hour when the door opens, and a woman who must be in her late 80s comes out of the cave where the radiation rooms are hidden. When I look at her, I think about how likely it is that all of her friends and family from the generations before her are gone. Many from her own generation have likely passed, too, whether it be sibling, cousin or childhood friend.

In fact, I know they have.

This woman is my mother.

She is smiling. There is almost a spring in her step.

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