With mistletoe over the doorway and heaping spreads of sugar-laden goodies arrayed on three tables, the Southern Maryland Oncology office of Waldorf physician M. Ashraf Meelu had all the trimmings of a festive holiday party Wednesday afternoon.
Patients munched on meatballs and drank red punch. Nurses dressed in elf garb passed around trays of chocolate chip cookies and encouraged visitors to take home a gaily wrapped package.
And Edna Nicely, 67, took in the merriment as her regular chemotherapy treatment flowed into her body through an intravenous tube.
This was not the typical yuletide gathering. Each partygoer was in one stage or another of cancer, with numerous varieties of the disease represented in the room. Some patients wore wigs, some had thinning hair, some were happily in remission. Some received their chemotherapy before joining the feast, while others came for the party with plans to return later for their treatment.
But all had a determination in their eyes, as they mingled with the oncology staff who had helped give them that hope.
"We enjoy coming here because they make it better for us," said Nicely, a silver-haired woman in a cheery red skirt who was at the oncology office for her weekly visit. She has battled breast cancer for five years, four years longer than doctors predicted she would live.
"We try to make it not dull," said Cindy Deller, a spirited nurse who organized the party and made green felt skirts and elf shoes for the female staff members to wear.
Deller's father died from cancer when she was 12, an experience that gives her a special empathy for the people she helps treat, she said. For the holidays, she said the office wanted to give the patients a boost, to let them know how special they are.
"Bad things seem to happen to the nicest people," she said, out of the patients' earshot and becoming serious for a moment. In front of the patients, though, she was vibrant and full of humor, showing off her Christmas hats and teasing some of the men about cornering them under the mistletoe.
Jerry Sipes, 57, was one of Deller's targets. The Cobb Island man finished chemotherapy for his colon cancer last summer and recently was certified to drive an ambulance. Next, the retired welder wants to become an emergency medical technician.
"I thank the Lord every day I open my eyes up," he said. "The fire ain't gone out yet."
In another corner of the room, Rose Smith, 66, of Oxon Hill sat writing her Christmas cards. She stayed all day at the office for a new type of treatment, one Meelu hopes will squelch the cancer that has reappeared in her lungs.
Six to eight hours of fluid dripping inside her wasn't exactly a treat, but she lucked out when her appointment coincided with the party, she said. For the occasion, Smith wore her wig of "saucy blond curls" and topped it with red antlers.
"They have a joy that really rubs off on you," she said of the oncology staff.
Some of the grim realities of cancer's grip still breached the spirited atmosphere. One woman stopped by only briefly, saying she wasn't feeling well. Smith predicted the unpleasant side effects from her own chemotherapy would hit on Christmas.
Steve and Lisa Bruch, both decked out in Santa hats, paused from their Christmas shopping to sample some of the goodies and hang out with the nurses. But on Thursday, Steve Bruch, 38, would travel to Waldorf again from his Northwest Washington home for his second chemotherapy treatment of the week.
The couple married in June, only to find out in September that Steve had lymphoma. He had 12 inches of his small intestine removed and undergoes chemotherapy every three weeks.
A recent CAT scan showed no sign of the cancer left in his body.
Thus, this was a day of newlywed bliss as the Bruchs enjoy their first Christmas season together. They would return the next day to continue the fight against their unwelcome guest.