“The good news is that the tumor has responded to the treatment.” The doctor sighed, without giving his patient time to celebrate the good part. “The bad news is that it hasn’t responded like we had hoped. We need to get more aggressive with your treatment, Mrs. Klingensmith. I want to start you on a second round of chemo today.”
Sandra closed her eyes to let the information sink in. She had hoped to hear that she was cancer-free at this appointment. Instead, she would have to undergo more chemo. Her heart plummeted from her chest to the pit of her stomach.
“Does it have to be today?” she asked, trying to hide the disappointment and twinge of fear in her voice. Sandra had truly thought that she’d be getting good news from the doctor, and she didn’t quite know how to react to receiving the opposite.
“Absolutely,” Dr. Haywood responded. “The sooner, the better.”
She sighed. “I just, I thought I’d be able to watch Mark play today. It’s game seven.”
The doctor nodded; he understood the significance of the day’s game and how important it would be to Sandra to watch her son’s hockey game. He hated giving bad news to any patient, but he knew that giving it on this particular day to Sandra was even more devastating.
Iris squeezed Sandra’s hand. Iris was there for moral support, mainly so Sandra wouldn’t be alone. Sandra’s fellow church members and friends from the community always offered their assistance and whatever help they could, but Sandra almost always turned them down. She was self-sufficient—she had to be, as a single mother for most of her son’s life—and didn’t know how to accept help from anyone.
Sandra’s relationship with Iris, though, was different. They weren’t related, but Iris was the closest thing to family that Sandra had, besides her son, Mark. Ever since Iris was a child, she was the daughter that Sandra had never had. And as Iris had grown into adulthood, her relationship with Sandra changed. They were friends. Best friends.
Dr. Haywood tried to be as encouraging and supportive as possible. He had a great bedside manner, but that was lost during such bad timing. “We’ll make sure we get you a room with a TV.” He reemphasized, “It’s really very important that we be proactive here and begin this next round right away, Mrs. Klingensmith. It could make a huge difference in your treatment.”
“Okay,” she sighed, ready to begin the chemotherapy process again. Sandra was so selfless when it came to her son—stubbornly so—that it was truly a fault. She pushed herself up from the chair and stood with her head high. “Well, we might as well get started then.”
Iris sighed in relief and smiled at the doctor. Of course she was worried about Sandra, especially since they had all hoped that the first round that the treatment would be sufficient. She hadn’t thought they’d be getting this kind of news: it wasn’t a step back, but it wasn’t exactly a step forward either. But Iris had to keep up the brave front, for Sandra’s sake. Iris would never let Sandra see her worry over her, because Sandra had forbidden it.
But Iris was worried. Hell, she was terrified.
The doctor called in a nurse to escort Sandra to her infusion room—one with a television, as the doctor had prescribed. Since Sandra’s son, Mark Klingensmith, was a hometown celebrity, they wanted to accommodate his mother and make sure she was happy with her care. Everyone in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, was a Dallas Comets fan, especially during the playoffs.
As the nurse listened to Sandra talk about Mark, Iris hung back so she could talk to the doctor alone. Sandra wasn’t big into details, but Iris was. She was standing in the hallway, just outside his door, when she quietly asked him, “So, Dr. Haywood, what’s the prognosis now, like, exactly?”
“I’m afraid her prognosis hasn’t changed at all. As I said, the chemo has stopped the tumor from growing but it hasn’t shrunk, so it’s still Stage III adenocarcinoma. It hasn’t spread, which is good.”
“Okay, so we’re just gonna try stronger chemo? More chemo? Or maybe radiation?” Iris hadn’t known a lot about lung cancer before Sandra’s diagnosis, but she had quickly learned more than she had ever wanted to know.
“Stronger and more chemo. I’m going to see how she reacts to this first infusion and plan her course of chemo on that. If she can handle this, then we’ll keep pushing. Radiation isn’t really an option for non-small cell lung cancer, unfortunately.”
Dr. Haywood paused, mulling over his next thought before he spoke. “I know that your mother—” he corrected himself “—I’m sorry, I keep saying that.”
“It’s okay,” Iris dismissed, waving her hand in the air. Anyone who didn’t know better made the same mistake and assumed they were mother and daughter. They even looked alike, with their shared Scandinavian ancestry: tall in stature with round faces and high cheekbones, striking crystal blue eyes, and straw-blonde hair.
The doctor shook his head; he wasn’t used to dealing with anyone other than a patient or a patient’s immediate family. And while everyone else in town knew the whole story behind Sandra and Iris’s relationship, Dr. Haywood had been away in med school in Minneapolis. He hadn’t had much time for hometown gossip while studying anatomy and physiology.
Plus, on those rare occasions when he dealt with nonfamily, they were usually lawyers or representatives, who were not nearly as obviously sincere and caring as Iris. And on top of how nice she was, Dr. Haywood thought she was so pretty, too. Not that that had anything to do with anything—it was just something that he had noticed.
He cleared his throat and continued with his thoughts. “I know that Sandra doesn’t want surgery. That’s why we went this route. But it is still the best treatment for her cancer. If this round doesn’t work, well, I don’t see how we can avoid it.”
She nodded in agreement with the doctor. “If it comes to that, then she’s just going to have to accept it. If she needs surgery, then she’s going to get it.”
Dr. Haywood smiled down at Iris. “It’s nice that Sandra has someone like you in her corner.”
Iris blushed a bit. She never expected praise for helping out, but it was nice that someone recognized all she did. “Thanks. I’m just doing what anyone else would do.”
He knew that wasn’t true; lots of people failed to step up to the plate when their loved ones needed them most. That was why he thought Iris was so special, and he truly admired her spirit throughout this whole ordeal. She was a rare gem, but he had to be the professional he was and treat the patient—and not let any feelings get in the way.
“Well, I’d better go catch up with her. Make sure we can get the game in her room. Thanks, Dr. Haywood.”
“No problem, Iris. Take care.” He gave her a little wave as she started down the hallway in the direction of the infusion rooms.
Sandra quickly settled into the chair to watch the game, and the nurse prepped the IV. Usually Sandra loved afternoon games, but more chemo was going to throw a wrench into her schedule.
Iris sat next to Sandra in a less comfortable chair and pulled out her iPad from her purse.
“Aren’t you going to watch the game with me, sweetie?”
“Oh, of course. But I have some e-mails to catch up on,” Iris told her. They were lucky enough to get a Saturday appointment this time, but Iris had to take a lot of time off during the week to take Sandra wherever she needed to be. She’d never tell Sandra that because that would make her feel bad, and Iris didn’t mind—as long as she could keep up with the paperwork.
“I know they’re mad they lost game six, but Mark always rises to the challenge. This is the game he ends his scoring drought.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Look at him. He always looked happiest when he was out on the ice. Doesn’t he look happy?”
Iris glanced up at the screen. The camera was following Mark as he warmed up. His jaw was tense, and his face was focused. He looked hard and intense—but Iris could see the happiness in his eyes. It was true that nothing made him happier than hockey. “Yeah, he does.”
Of course, the helmet hid his unruly, brownish-blondish hair, and the visor masked his hazel eyes; he got his rugged good looks and square jaw from his father’s side of the family. His handsomeness was disguised a bit because he was in rough shape and beat up from the physicality and intensity of playoff hockey. There was a cut under his left eye from a high stick to the face in game five, and he had a busted lip and bruised cheek from getting elbowed in a scrum around the opponent’s net. His equipment made him appear broader and taller than he was—which was already pretty big: Mark was over six feet and well over 200 pounds of mostly muscle.
Iris opened a new e-mail and wondered out loud, “When are you going to tell him you’re undergoing a second round of chemo?”
“Sandra....” Iris didn’t know what to say. “You can’t not tell him.”
“Yes, I can. And you’re not going to tell him either. Not while he’s in the playoffs.”
“Mark needs to concentrate right now, and I don’t want to worry him.”
“He’d want to know.”
“And I’ll tell him. Later. When he doesn’t need to worry about winning.” She scratched around her IV port on the back of her hand. “Promise me, Iris, that you won’t tell him until the playoffs are over.”
“I don’t know, Sandra. I don’t like this. You can’t hide this from him.” The idea of keeping her continuing treatment a secret did not sit well with Iris. Just the idea of not telling him made her stomach clench. Iris knew Sandra wanted to protect Mark, but Sandra was sick; it wasn’t her job to protect him because she had her health to worry about, and that should have been her main concern.
“Please, promise me. For me. It’s all I ask.”
Iris turned back to her e-mail. Sandra gave so much and asked for so little. It was impossible to refuse. “Okay. I promise.”