First Person

Jewish World Review August 6, 2001 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5761

The Waiting Room

By Marlene Adler Marks

FOUR guys sit in the Insider's Waiting Room at Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center in Los Angeles, preparing to have blood drawn. Like many cancer patients, they dress like they've just had a run around the track: sweats, athletic shoes and, of course, baseball caps. With cancer, you've got to be ready to go the distance.

There is a young guy with one leg. There is a tall, pale guy with a big, beefy chest. There is a dapper, darker guy, who speaks to the nurse in Farsi. And there is me.

Yes, in the Insider's Waiting Room, I am just one of the guys hoping for a good white blood cell count. I'm wearing the blue sweat suit, the white Nikes, and the cap with the letter M.

Just one of the guys. Now that I have lung cancer, I have finally achieved the unisexual parity that the woman's movement longed for. Sitting with our IVs and portacaths, all patients are one. There is not much difference between men and women, young and old, lung and breast and prostate. There is only sick and well.

Soon verdicts come back for three of the four. They have blood counts that are not so hot, indicating an immune system that at least for the moment is shutting down. They'll each need shots of blood enhancer to perk them up before chemo resumes.


The decline of the blood count is a normal, predictable response to a body under attack, and yet as I wait for my own blood work, I take my fellows' news both collectively and personally. Overhearing their verdicts, I feel sad for them and worried for me. It feels like a bad day at traffic court, and the judge is ornery. How will G-d distinguish me from them?

"Look under the cap," I urge the all-knowing One. "There's a worthy person here."


Since cancer, I've tried so hard to be worthy. I practice becoming Bernie Siegel's "exceptional patient:" I hug my doctors. I keep a journal. I do art-therapy drawings. I take my daily walks up a steep hill. I eat a high protein diet including a flax seed shake. I listen to a visualization tape and imagine my cancer cells vanquished by chemo. I plant a garden big with lavender. On any virtual report card, I get high grades.

But if none of it works, if my white cells drop and my CT scans come out with tumors, it won't be that G-d finds me unworthy. Not at all.

In the Insiders' Waiting Room, I can almost hear G-d cry with frustration. G-d hates cancer as much as I do, and understands the waste and wear that accompanies it. G-d hopes that researchers hurry up and design real cures.

G-d is in the process of activation that inspires doctors to work night and day for a cancer cure. They're making headway but, still, it's taking way too long.

But is there really no cause and effect, no connection between good works and a good count? Of course there is.

A plausible connection between good works and health lies in two Jewish concepts, "kindness" and "justice."

"Chesed" is goodness or kindness, the expansive social instinct that makes us care about, and care for, each other. Since my diagnosis, I've learned how crucial it is to get those cards and emails telling me of patient success stories. Every cancer survivor's "chesed" cheers me on.

"Din" is "justice," the constricting, all-or-nothing, notion of right and wrong. Without justice, the obsessive determination that I am part of my cure, I'd crawl into my bed, waiting for chemo every three weeks, and for the doctor miraculously to pronounce me healed.

From a patient's perspective, I need them both. I walk a tightrope between "chesed" and "din."

I can't be all "chesed." I need time to be alone. And I don't have a hold on "din." I can't cure myself no matter how "positively" I think. To blame myself for any bad outcome would lead to despair or worse. In the waiting room, there are four worthy people, not just one. Asking G-d to choose me and not them is heinous. That's why the rabbis understand that excessive "justice" leads to murder. I have to guard against the survivor imperative, the narcissistic instinct, that if only one person is going to weather cancer, it should be me.

It's difficult to keep my balance between these two forces. Good thing G-d is on the tightrope, walking right on the edge with me.

JWR contributor Marlene Adler Marks is a columnist and author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life ". Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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© 2001, Marlene Adler Marks