I moved to Washington DC seven months before my cancer was diagnosed. I live in Cleveland Park which is a nice residential neighborhood less than three miles from the White House. After the first surgery I was out of work for six weeks to recover. During that time I learned several advantages to being in a big city like Washington when you get sick:
My apartment is just blocks from a business district so I can easily walk down to restaurants, grocery stores, coffee houses, a movie theater, and a Metro subway station. That's been great for post-surgical weeks when I wasn't allowed to drive and had trouble walking. Going to the shops was good exercise for recuperating my strength and having some human contact in a bustling city, even if it's mostly nonverbal, is a big help for maintaining mental health during long periods of convalescence. I can't imagine living with cancer in some of the small towns and quiet suburbs where I have resided before. I would stay indoors for days on end and be left feeling like a helpless patient.
I have a small public park a block away and a real treasure, the National Zoo, three blocks away. Being part of the Smithsonian Instituion, it has free admission so I visit about once a month. It's therapeutic to get outdoors into lush foliage with nice trails and watch the animals play. The Zoo is also where I went with my girlfriend on our fourth date — the day that I told her about my disease and gave her the first chance to run away.
The other attractions around DC give me plenty of excuses for outings and help entertain friends and family who come to visit or caretake. The National Cathedral is nearby; I'm not religious but it is comforting to tour the grounds, relax in the gardens, attend an occasional concert, and bring my visiting relatives to pray in a place that should be close to God, whatever he is.
Another of my favorite places is the National Mall. The museums excite the scientist and artist in me. The memorials help me place my life in the context of history. And I enjoy watching the tourists who are coming to these sights for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. It makes me feel special to be living in a city that attracts visitors and workers from around the world and makes the national news and talk shows every night.
I'm also fortunate to have easy access to great research hospitals: the National Institutes of Health, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins. When I've gone there for clinical trials and rare procedures I've seen that many of the other patients have to travel many hundreds of miles to get the same treatment. I'm still struggling with the idea of fate, but if I had to get sick then this was the best place to do it.
There is a dark side to Washington too. This is where the altruistic and ambitious come to serve their country. Unfortunately some are a bit more ambitious than altruistic and some become arrogant, greedy, and corrupt. You can sense the competitiveness and egomania that infects newcomers. Facing cancer seems to vaccinate one against fascination with the petty things. Although I am sometimes bitter about how cancer shoved me off of my intended path in life, I am glad that it has also pulled me out of the rat race.