I had never seen someone quite so helpless as Allen*, so away from the grasp of any type of comfort. When I walked into the room, the 20-year-old cancer patient was sitting on the exam table with his legs crossed. He was looking down at his electronic gaming device, pressing buttons randomly, perhaps in an effort to avoid making eye contact with anyone in the room-especially me. The thinning hair on the top of his large round head, his long and scruffy beard covering his chin, and his thin-rimmed glasses seemed odd in juxtaposition to his windbreaker pants, big white sneakers, and toy. It was as if he was both a young child and an aging old man at the same time.
I wanted more than anything to speak with Allen, though I’m not sure what I would have said if I had been given the opportunity to make anything more than small talk. I wanted him to know that I understood what it felt like to dry heave for hours during a chemotherapy treatment, how strange it was to have all your friends be afraid to talk to you and to have your mother treat you like a five-year-old again. I wanted him to know that I understood what he was going through far more than most people did. But that wouldn’t have helped Allen, because while I was standing before him, a medical student following my passion, he was dying.
I resorted to trying to make him smile. Allen, however, did not even seem annoyed, as if my presence was not even significant enough for such a thing. He seemed angry at himself, his situation, and his tumor. But the worst part about Allen’s situation was not his appearance or his sadness or even the fact that his pelvic sarcoma had relapsed for the third time and was only going to get worse. The worst part about Allen’s situation was his mother.