The Lifers

Jun 06

Last week at chemo, I ended up sitting next to Newbie and Spunky: the three of us were all diagnosed a short time ago and are in Round One of our cancer battles.  Their treatments are bi-weekly, so I didn’t see them today.

Today, I sat with new-to-me friends: Bear, Sunny, and Vivid.  They are self-described “Lifers” in the Chemo Room.  They are all living with cancer in their bodies, and will likely get chemo for the rest of their hopefully-very-long lives.  One was diagnosed eighteen years ago; one is in “remission”–her cancer is unchanged for the past four years; one has a grand-daughter Maren’s age who has never seen her with hair.  They are undergoing “maintenance” chemo.  Chemo is keeping them alive.  They follow on protocol until it stops working, then they switch to a new cocktail.  Repeat.  Forever.

These women live life with perspective.  They are grateful for the Chemo Room, the nurses, the doctors, the treatment.  They don’t complain about the cost of gas to get to chemo (others do).  They don’t complain about the side effects (others do).  They don’t complain about having to come to chemo, forever.  They don’t complain about the weather, or politics, or anything really.  They have perspective.  Again, we laughed: we were the rowdy crew in the corner by the window.  Today I sat by the window, and the Lifers, apparently, always sit by the window: they have been here a long time and they view it as the best seat in the house.

Vivid and I are both bald.  I complimented her very-evenly-penciled-in eyebrows.  She said thank you and that the hardest part is definitely trying to make them symmetrical.  (I agree!)  She made me choke with laughter with stories about how, over the years, she has glanced in a mirror after being out-and-about and realized that she had scratched an itch and rubbed her eyebrow right off.  She has wisps of hair and does not wear a wig.  She’s the only other person I’ve met who exposes her bald head regularly.  I like her a lot.

Bear broke the rules and had her fourteen-year-old daughter, Kip, with her today.  Kip was delightful, and I let her graffiti on all of the tissue boxes near the windows.  (Her mom had said “no”, and I said, “Oh, do mine, I need something interesting to look at–I don’t think anyone will mind.”)  I think Bear was happy I gave her daughter affirmation and a project.  Bear is raising a loving, bright, mischievous daughter while living with cancer.  Go Bear!

Sunny has had a double mastectomy.  We talked about her experience with that some; she is the first person I’ve met who was open about it.  In my very early learnings about surgery, it has become very clear that reconstruction after a mastectomy is nothing like a breast augmentation (boob job).  I’d call the result of reconstruction more the illusion of breasts, rather than actual breasts.  However, all I have to do is focus on the cancer-free body, and I am thinking I am pretty darn happy about whatever is to come for me!

All of us with cancer have “bad luck” or “been dealt a poor hand” or just “what the _____?”  The Lifers look at everyone else with cancer and think, “Gosh, that would be great!”  Their situation, incurable cancer, is grave, but their attitude is hopeful.  All of them expressed a profound faith in God.  I breathed in their spirit today and felt grateful that my cancer has not metastasized and that my tumor(s) are responding to treatment.  It might sound weird, but I would be proud to carry a glimmer of their dignity and grace in the face of adversity.  I’m definitely learning some life lessons in the Chemo Room.  Thank you God.

In other good news, my cancerous lymph node has shrunk down to the point where we can’t find it during the clinical exam.  Yes!  More cancer is dead!  Dr. Wonderful and Nurse Practitioner Rockstar smile and nod through my appointment: I am progressing in the right direction.  Everyone focuses on what is happening right now, today.  Tentatively, I asked about making an appointment with Dr. Awesome, my surgeon, to start anticipating the logistics and the details of the upcoming surgery.  I was given the go-ahead to make the call and get an appointment on the calendar.  Yay!  (I’m a planner, what can I say?)  In general, no one talks about what will happen medically next month or in the winter, or next year.  I am thankful for this, it helps me to live in the moment and Do Today Well.  We assess today, we treat today, we make decisions about today.  And today, today was a good day.


  1. You carry more than a glimmer and I am so thankful for the radiant dignity and grace you have shared with all of us. Love you.

  2. Angela Johnson /

    Wonderful news!! Praise and gratitude to God!! Thanks for sharing the story of your brave Lifers – and Kip. All of you have collectively changed my thinking – just that minor nudge that bounced the needle further into the groove of “God you are wondrous; thank you, thank you, thank you for your blessings and for today!!” Prayers covering your family and the Lifers right now!

  3. suenitz /

    Hi Jen. You have been chosen by God to bring love and hope and a sense of peace to all those lives you have touched and are touching. How blessed we all are because of your spirit! May He continue to reveal to you all the wonderful gifts He has given you and that you will continue to use them for His glory.

  4. melody snow /

    thank you for your inspiring words that make even this survivor look at life through a very bright/sun shiny window! I am soooo thankful to God that the evil cancer cells are dying inside you….Praise the Lord!!! and the Lifers? Yes, I too met them during chemo and they made my lil’ battle seem like just that, a temporary inconvience. Isn’t it amazing that cancer, evil, nasty, scary cancer, can be appreciated in ways you never imagined? You meet all these wonderful, inspiring, LIVING patients, doctors, nurses, etc. You, my dear, are a bright spot in my day. You uplift me with your words…..And the prayers will continue daily for your complete healing! Thank you for being you, for blogging, and for making complete strangers very happy to “know you”. 🙂

  5. Micki /

    You are so wise beyond your years! Your positive approach to a bad situation inspires me. God has given you a contagious spirit. I am praying for you and your sweet girls!

  6. Cyndi /

    I read your two recent posts out of order, and I just had to comment on this one as well. So, so glad the cancerous lymph node was so shrunken it was unfindable!! That’s great!! By the way, I’ve been imagining and praying that any cancerous nodes and tumors are shrinking away…into nothingness!! Yes, I definiitely think I’ll continue with those thoughts and prayers of nothingness now…

  7. My mom is a lifer. My 8 year old has never known her cancer free, and she is usually losing hair, growing hair, losing hair. A cycle. My mom has had cancer in some form since I was 21, a recent college grad. I have not known adult life any different. (I’m 38 btw, it’s been 16 years.) For this reason, I love your attitude. This is the only way we know how to live. 🙂

  8. Christin /

    You are an inspiration. You say you breathe up the women who you’ve met and I feel like I breath you in as I read. I’m not good a blogging yet. I’m sure this will come up as Baby Stegman and I haven’t figured it out yet. I read your blogs from the top down so it’s reverse chronological order. haha! But it’s still awesome. My eyes are full of joyful tears. Of tears of appreciation and understanding. you make “the worst” not so scary. You make God feel like he’s right next to me. And you make THIS day feel like a gift. I’m praying (in one of your more recent posts) for obliteration!!! for awe!! I’m praying!