In a small town, the ripples of surprise caused by a cancer diagnosis don’t stop with family and friends. They spread outward through the secondary connections in the community: the merchants, the clubs, and the schools that tie us together socially. The pool in which they reverberate may be small but before the surface smoothes, many have felt the movement.
My wife and I moved to Hood River 32 years ago, refugees from the social upheaval particular to California in the 60s and 70s.We sought a place to settle and raise a family. Over time we became part of the nurturing continuity of this community. The vast natural environment of the Columbia River Gorge and the Mount Hood National Forest complement the unpretentious character of its people. The values of the town are reflected in our proximity to what is wild.
During the three decades we’ve lived here, Hood River evolved from a sleepy agricultural community with a dying timber industry, to become a blend of both farming and tourism. The Hood River Valley’s outdoor attractions draw thousands of visitors. The river features unparalleled sail and kite boarding; the mountains beckon to hikers and skiers.
Hood River is popular but it retains a small town’s humility. Part of the community’s allure lies in its innate modesty. The city is beautiful but not flashy. We are but an ornament embellishing the grandeur of nature that surrounds us.
Our country hospital is suitable for the size of the populace. Most cancer patients, however, must obtain their treatments elsewhere. The hospital performs X-rays and MRIs but not radiation. Nor does our town have a resident oncologist. Following primary treatment, patients can have their care managed by a once-a-week visiting oncologist. Here, he oversees an infusion ward with eight or so stations. That’s what I do. I went to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for my stem cell transplant but for the last year have done follow-ups with the itinerant Dr. M.
Small towns have few secrets. As Postmaster of an upper valley community, I have something of a public persona. I know a lot about my customers and must discipline myself to be circumspect in what I say. In turn, residents can scrutinize my life. Most people know I have cancer.
Once each month, I travel 60 miles west to Portland to meet with others living with multiple myeloma. That’s because Hood River doesn’t have the numbers to provide support groups for the many varieties of cancer. There is, however, an informal clique of compassionate cancer survivors in our community. Updates of prognosis for one another circulate like weather forecasts: sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.
Cancer in a small town occurs much like it does everywhere else. The ebb and flow of the illness is a common denominator among all cancer survivors. What’s unique is our inter-connectedness. In Hood River, our paths cross more frequently at places where we work or perhaps the waiting room of our shared doctor.
The healing power of community cannot be over estimated. Misfortune, in whatever form, finds support in the informal connections and sense of place that bonds us together. A serious illness or injury may tear a hole in the fabric into which we are all woven. In time, though, the cloth is mended with the generous spirit of belonging.