This week, the third week of February 2012 marks the opening of the new Cancer Center at Duke University Hospital and my husband, Sandy and I were invited to a couple of the ceremonies marking the occasion.
The new center was the dream of Victor Dzau, the chancellor and CEO of the Duke University Hospital system. Many people told him it was a crazy idea, an impossible idea for many reasons but especially because of the economy but he refused to believe them. He had this vision and he set out to make it come true. This week it became a reality.
I love to see dreams come true. It’s one of my daily prayers for my children and my grandchildren. It’s great when I’m a part of it but even if I’m just the observer and can be present for the event, I am thrilled. Sandy and I went to Nashville for one of my significant birthdays and for part of our trip, we toured the Ryman Auditorium. It’s the home of the original Grand Old Opry. We were on the tour with one other couple. They seemed like simple people. They were farmers from somewhere in the south. When we reached the dressing room that use to be Johnny Cash’s the man from the other couple became very quiet. His wife leaned over to us and said, “Being here is his dream come true.” To this day I can remember the feeling of honor I had at being present when this man’s dream came true, even something as simple as a trip to the Ryman Auditorium.
It’s been twelve years, almost thirteen that I’ve been out of cancer treatments but I can still feel, with every one of my senses what it was like to walk into the old cancer center. It filled me with dread. It was dark and overflowing with people and it had a strange odor. If my husband had not been at my side, I’m not sure I could have remained standing. After the visit with the doctor, we then toured the infusion center, the chemo room. If the hospital seemed to me like a foreign country, the chemo room seemed like an alien planet. I couldn’t breathe. And, I knew this was my future, my destiny and my hope.
Fifty thousand people came to be treated at the Duke Cancer Center in 2011. They came from all over the world. One of the speakers at the ribbon cutting called cancer “the scourge of the 21st century.” I am sure it has touched your life either you personally or someone you know and love or worse yet, knew and loved.
When I finished treatment, I had an End of Radiation Celebration and invited anyone who had helped me along the journey: family, friends, doctors, nurses and technicians. I took the opportunity to accept donations toward the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program. They had helped me so much through some very difficult stages and I wanted to give back. A friend and I made an appointment with the then head of the Cancer Center and gave him the donations and told him something needed to be done to make the place softer, more comfortable, less frightening. He said he understood our concerns and he agreed but it was an issue with money and it probably wasn’t going to happen.
Yesterday when I walked into our new building and then into our new Self Image Boutique, I cried. I know I’m not the only one. One other survivor was there with me and she too had tears in her eyes. It’s a beautiful room full of light and soft colors and hope. The lobby of the new building has a fireplace and a piano and light pouring in from cathedral like windows. The floor has inscribed in it word of faith and hope that came from the book Finding the Can in Cancer written by four women cancer patients who worked and volunteered with the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program. The infusion center has small private rooms with TVs and recliners and looks out over a roof top garden.
I know people who come there for treatment will still be frightened, confused and overwhelmed. Cancer creates those emotions in the patient and their loved ones but maybe now with a softer, kinder environment and state of the art technology, people will know they will not just be cared for but as the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program mission statements says, “they will be cared about.”
Victor Dzau looked at me that evening and said, “Jean, you have been a big part of this happening.” I thought. “He’s such a nice man and so good at his job. No wonder he’s accomplished this amazing feat. He makes everyone feel important and valued.” But, that’s not fair is it? It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to him. Our program which began twenty five years ago by Rachel Schanberg at the bequest of her young daughter Linda has been working for compassionate care of the whole person since its inception. It began in a closet with eighteen volunteers. Now, they have over two hundred and fifty volunteers and four counselors. All of their services are free of charge.
I’ve been a part of the program for over twelve years giving time, talent and treasure. My husband Sandy has been right by my side supporting me and my efforts in their mission. We have been working towards creating an atmosphere of love, nurturance and compassion for the whole person, mind body and spirit. “Treat the whole person, not just the disease!” we’ve shouted. “Listen to me! Listen to us! Listen to all those who have had this disease! Hear us!” I’ve shouted it with all of my being, every cell, every way I know how and last night I was told by a gracious visionary, “I listened.” Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and from all of us who have worked so very hard to create a place of true healing. Let the healing begin.