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  • Writer's pictureSonya Braverman

the cancer hotel

I recently had the good fortune (or bad luck, depending on how you look at it) to accompany my husband to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. The Center is huge, occupying several city blocks near downtown. The buildings are new and separated by trees and grassy park-like areas. Many of the structures are connected by bridges so, no matter what the weather, patients never have to go outside.

Internationally renowned, MD Anderson's almost religious devotion to patient care and treatment makes it #1 in the world for Cancer treatment for almost thirty years! It's also a top-tier research center, conducting groundbreaking studies on nearly every aspect of Cancer. Their goal is the eradication of malignant disease. You can feel it in the air. 

Despite that, I wasn't looking forward to the trip. I didn't want to think about Cancer anymore. I wasn't hopeful. Even saying the word "Cancer" left a bad taste in my mouth. The angel of death. That's how I thought about it. I had already lost one husband five years earlier; I wasn't ready to part with another. 

Some pretty serious stuff, huh? You betcha'. 

I was going to have to conduct myself accordingly -- no irreverent jokes, light-hearted banter, flip comments, or (perish the thought) four-letter words. I wiped the smile off my face, vowed to zip my lips, and threw my few pieces of black and gray clothing into the suitcase. No hot pink, lime green, or crazy orange duds for this trip. I packed like I was going to a funeral.

My behavior would conform to what I believed was the solemn, even grave, nature of our trip. It was going to be a difficult and painful journey. After all, my husband had Cancer, traditional medical treatments had failed to arrest it, and the disease was advancing. Gloom and doom. 

Within the first few days, we found what makes MD Anderson so outstanding -- the finely-tuned interface between patients and clinical services. And the efficient, upbeat, and friendly manner of the staff in delivering those services. As we made our way from one appointment to another, lab tests, and imaging, we were struck by how well the system worked. Everything was orchestrated with detailed precision; the right hand always knew what the left hand was doing. And the whole shebang was geared towards making the situation as easy as possible for the patient. 

Yet, it was our experiences as guests of the Jesse Jones Rotary House International Hotel that made our first trip to Houston such a truly remarkable one. The hotel sits on the grounds of MD Anderson and is "home" to Cancer patients from all over the world anywhere from a few days to months at a time! 

As we checked into the hotel and I looked around, I thought, "This is weird. And strange. Really strange. A hotel where the majority of guests have Cancer, and sometimes very advanced Cancer. A "Cancer Hotel." Now, what could be more fun than that?

Sounds awfully depressing, huh? I was prepared for the worst. After all, a visit to MD Anderson often means that the treatments available in the patient's hometown may have failed and the patient is searching for a second opinion, a completely new treatment, or a clinical trial. Maybe another nine lives. But most of all, hope.

What we actually discovered was that our visit to MD Anderson was an awe-inspiring, humbling, and wholly uplifting adventure. The most striking features were the abundant smiles, caring, and genuinely positive, helpful, and hopeful attitudes among both patients and staff. Any negativity I had about Cancer simply flew out the window.

So, where was the "gloom and doom" I was expecting? I was ready and waiting. Patiently. After all, this was a Cancer Hotel, C-a-n-c-e-r. Death. 

The spacious Hotel lobby was welcoming and beautifully decorated in bright colors, happy prints and plush patterned carpeting. Floor to ceiling windows flanked an entire wall and looked out onto a leafy courtyard lined with benches. Sunshine blanketed the area in warmth, and comfortable sofas and chairs, desks, and recliners were arranged in intimate groups throughout the large space. A grand piano sat gracefully in front of the windows. It was cozy and inviting. Soothing music flowed from hidden speakers and aromatherapy from . . . somewhere!

In between appointments, we explored the Hotel and discovered many places for patients and caregivers to relax, reflect, and recharge. And take care of the activities of daily living during their stay. Those included a television room, game room, quiet room, library, restaurants, exercise room, heated pool, whirlpool, spa, business center, shops, a post office, bank, laundry center, flower shop, pharmacy and travel agency. Yes, there were several bars, too. And entertainment. This was a place where patients were encouraged to concentrate on living, rather than dying. 

Assistive devices were offered free of charge and a beauty salon provided complimentary shampoos, haircuts, shaves, wigs, scarves and hats. Free mini massages were available in the Wellness Center. A Hospitality Center provided patients with an orientation and were open 24/7 to help with just about any issue related to their care. 

The public spaces were filled with artwork, pottery, and sculpture -- on the walls, the floor, bookshelves, lighted cubbies, tables -- everywhere.  Eye candy to delight the soul.  Lovely and tranquil. 

It was in these public spaces that patients congregated, engaging in animated conversations, reading, or playing cards or games. It was obvious that many folks had travelled a  great distance to MD Anderson as evidenced by their foreign tongues and native dress. It was here in this Hotel that we made new "Cancer Friends." 

We met one gentlemen who had been staying at the Cancer Hotel for eight months. He said that during this period his treatment team at MD Anderson had succeeded in totally eradicating his Cancer. This occurred after several years of conventional treatment in his hometown hospital after which he had been pronounced "terminal." 

We met another couple who were both being treated here. The husband had been coming to MD Anderson for twenty-one years, and the wife for nineteen. The husband said he didn't know what the magic was, but they were both still kicking, years after their local oncologist had pronounced that they would be dead and buried. His cheerful, upbeat demeanor made me and my husband laugh. 

And then there was the woman with Stage 4 Breast Cancer who was given a year to live. She's still chuckling about it over twenty years later -- thanks to MD Anderson!

Well. Maybe miracles do happen.

We enjoyed visiting with our new Cancer Friends. Everyone was positive and had an encouraging story to share, as well as tips for negotiating MD Anderson. We learned about what to see and do in Houston. In between appointments, we and our Cancer Friends were chauffeured around by the free "Cancer Shuttle." Together, we discovered all the best shopping and restaurants. 

"Hey," I whispered to my husband one morning as we were lying in bed, "This is fun. It's not what I expected. I'm actually having a good time. How about you?" He laughed and said that right now his biggest concern wasn't Cancer, but where we would eat dinner that evening." 

Staying at the Cancer Hotel was healing. Almost transformative. There was no gloom and doom, darkness or destruction. The master of death wasn't lurking around the next corner. Everybody talked about Cancer; they said the "C" word out loud, even laughed and joked about it. They didn't whisper, retreat from it, run the other way or pretend it didn't exist. 

They chased it. Ran after it. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerfully than a locomotive, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. They were fighting the battle for survival, and they weren't givin' in or givin' up! Every single person we met, whether patient or staff, had an "I'm going to beat this attitude!"

MD Anderson is a place dedicated to life and wellness. Not to forever, mind you, but something short of that. Cancer is not a dirty word there. And what happened in Houston won't stay in Houston. I'll shout it from the roof -- Cancer isn't about dying. It's about living, renewal, and hope. 

We'll be returning to Houston, and this time I'm packing my bright purple hoodie, rainbow leggings, and hot pink sequined sneakers! I may even bring my cheeky attitude, too! 

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