Pilgrims on the Camino del Norte, Spain (Wikimedia Commons)

After my first round of chemotherapy Tuesday at Southern Illinois University’s Simmons Cancer Center, I was asked how it went. I think my answer surprised us both (I know it did me), and the conversation went a little bit like this.

“I liked it,” I blurted out.

“Well, I’ve never heard anyone say that before,” was the entirely appropriate response.

Partly I was relieved by the way they do things in the infusion center at Southern Illinois University’s Simmons Cancer Institute, which prides itself on “providing holistic care beyond chemotherapy and infusion treatments.” Tuesday morning I had the feeling they do whatever they can to make an unpleasant, scary process tolerable.

One small example: I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, and I was wearing a zipfront hoodie that matched the blue-and-red plaid shirt I was wearing; someone noticed it; we swapped the Cubs-Cardinals wisecracks that are so much a part of life in downstate Illinois; and at the end of my four-hour infusion session, they located a Chicago Cubs chemo-port pillow to include in the gift pack they give new patients. This deep in St. Louis Cardinals country, I think it shows a neighborly vibe to our local sports rivalries that sets central Illinois apart from Tennessee vs., Alabama, Pitt v. Penn State, even Iowa vs. Illinois on game day in the Quad-Cities.

Perhaps I should explain something I never knew before: That chemo-port pillow fastens with velcro straps across a car seatbelt where it crosses over a rider’s chemo port, a surgically implanted IV infusion device near the right shoulder. Without a pillow to cushion it from the seatbelt, a port area can get pretty sensitive.

I do not want to minimize the desperate, agonizing side of chemotherapy. And I suspect I’m in a honeymoon period, or what 12-steppers call a pink cloud, a feeling of relief and agency because you’re finally doing something about a problem. Here’s the tricky part: How do you make it last when things get tough again — as surely they will. I hope, if nothing else, it will be a chance to catch up on some much-needed reading.

Chemotherapy, I’ve learned from an authoritative source (my oncologist) is “no walk in the park,” but they do what they can at SIU to make it bearable. Infusion takes several hours at the best of times, and they have cubicles set up at with reclining chairs and TVs on the wall. Once you’re settled in, they hook you up to an IV drip. At first, I tuned my TV to MSNBC and watched a story on fusion energy research. It lasted about two minutes. Then something came on about ex-President Trump, US House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy or Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., I forget which one — I can hardly tell them apart anymore, they’re all so bitter and angry and they hate people like me. I turned the TV off.

Besides, my time was better spent reading. Tuesday I had with me a book by Irish priest and social worker Brendan McManus SJ. It’s titled Redemption Road: Grieving on the Camino, and it’s a first-person account of McManus’ experience on the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route sometimes known in English as the Way of St. James. I’m only about halfway through it, so I’ll quote instead from a publisher’s blurb by the Irish Jesuit Provincialate in Dublin:

[McManus] is not just a Jesuit priest walking an ancient trail, but essentially a person grieving after his brother’s suicide, trying to make sense of life and faith. Undertaking the entire 500 miles from the French border, Brendan walks for forty days on the grueling northern coastal route, which roughly equates to climbing a mountain a day.

In this searingly honest human and spiritual search, the author is confronted with his limits and faces failure several times. Feeling his raw humanity and frailty on the hard road is a humbling experience of limitation and he is sorely tempted to abandon his quest.

I don’t want to get all cutsey-pooh with the metaphors here — or overly precise and allegorical — but I figured reading about McManus’ pilgrimage might be helpful as I set out of my chemo journey. I like the guy’s style of writing. In fact, just about everything in his background and experience equips him to appeal to readers like me. I read some of his inspirational writing soon after I got my diagnosis (blogged about it HERE and HERE), and I liked it so much, I ordered Redemption Road from an online bookseller.

A former executive with Hewlitt Packard in the UK, McManus understands the internet and mass media. (Indeed, some of his footnotes remind me more of hyperlinks to explanatory material than documentation of sources.) After his career change, he edited the Irish Jesuit News and served as a chaplain and photographer at a Jesuit school in Galway. In other words, his career path is remarkably similar to mine — with one very obvious exception since I’m not a rostered member of holy orders — and he obviously knows how to get information across to inattentive readers. It’s a skill I had to nurture in equal measure as a journalist and a teacher, and I want to study how he does it in more detail.

Anyway, Tuesday morning I turned off the TV and settled into my chair with my copy of Redemption Road. I’m about half to two-thirds of the way through it now, and it’s living up to expectations. Again, McManus’ experience parallels my own at key moments, in spite of the obvious differences.

I’ve never been on a pilgrimage, for example, and my hiking days (in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park instead of the Camino del Norte spur of the main Camino de Santiago that McManus followed in Spain) are long past. But I’ve had moments like this one that he describes, both on and off the hiking trail.

Looking at the map, I thought I found an alternative route. I set off in the wrong direction, however, which a man in a wheelchair informed of two kilometers later. There was nothing I could do but return to the bar and wait for the bus. […] However, I had a strong sense that all these detours and injuries were teaching me. Mostly I just needed to slow down and be more patient, accepting the gift inherent in a situation without looking to better it.

Reading that, I glanced up at the IV bag above my recliner in the SIU infusion center. Yep, I thought. Sometimes you just have to slow down and be patient.

Citation. Brendan McManus SJ, Redemption Road: From Grief to Peace through Walking the Camino de Santiago (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2016), 38-39.

[Uplinked Dec. 20, 2022]

3 thoughts on “Pilgrims: Reading about a pilgrimage on Spain’s Camino de Santiago as I set out on my chemotherapy journey

  1. Dear Pete, I was surprised and yet not surprised with the positive manner in which you are responding to your chemotherapy journey. Thank you for humbly sharing your experience – allowing us to accompany you on this incredible pilgrimage. I am inspired and ever so grateful to you! It’s a WOW moment for me! I look forward to the next episode.
    Grateful, loving, supportive prayer,
    Bernice

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  2. Why, thanks so much for your generous words! As I think about it, I could have written this piece in a different direction — about the value of community, from the community of pilgrims McManus joined along the road, to the people who create a community at the SIU infusion center and many, many more I didn’t mention, including the communities in my church (the source of the conversation I quoted) and the Dominican sisters. NOTE TO SELF: Maybe I just oughta do that!

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