For a cancer survivor, it’s enough to lay you flat. There’s a day when you learn that someone who has been in your survivor universe is no longer a part of that universe. And this news not only shakes you to the core, it roils the pot of emotions resting on your internal stovetop to a vigorous boil.
I’m a seven-and-a-half-year breast cancer survivor, and when I got diagnosed, I was certain I’d never awaken on another morning of my life without my first thought being of cancer. There are really so many worries to have: Is this all some horrible mistake? How will I get through chemo—and is there a good chance that I will be the historic exception and not lose my hair? How do I tell my children, loved ones, and friends? Will I or will I not opt for reconstruction? Why did I get this freaking disease and not the woman I’m spying from the bank drive-thru who is smoking, obese, and sashaying into McDonald’s without a care in the world? (Note: one of my particular and not-too-healthy coping mechanisms during my illness was being crazily judgmental and idealizing everyone else’s life.) I remember being at the playground with my kids and feeling absolutely furious about the fact that other moms and their kids were running around, swinging, and laughing in a most carefree way—indicative again that they had no real concerns about life weighing on their minds! Looking back, I think I needed to compartmentalize and reduce things to their most “black-and-white” state to make it through sometimes. And then the unimaginable happened: Somewhere along the way I had a day when my first thought was of breakfast, eagerly anticipated time with a friend, or a walk with my kids and our new puppy. And that day was followed by another…and another.
This is not likely true of all cancer patients, but in the black-and-white thinking realm, I wanted to believe that if I did everything I was supposed to do (have my mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and Herceptin), then I would deserve to live. Hell, anyone who went through any of this stuff should at least be given a pass in the form of an assured future, I thought. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt. I still get mad and ask why cancer can’t be more like school—if you work hard, you’ll get an “A.” So much for simple and wishful thinking.
The first loss I experienced of someone with breast cancer was a woman a bit older than I who had been super healthy before her diagnosis. She was a respected professional, an avid golfer, long and happily coupled, a loving mother to an adult daughter, and an all-round wonderful person. She was diagnosed perhaps 2 or 3 years after I was. I tried as best I could to talk to her about my experience in a helpful way, participated with her in various pink events, had her over for lunch, and checked in with a phone call periodically.
But something happened we didn’t expect. She didn’t get better, didn’t thrive, went downhill. I watched her lose her strength, and as a tangential friend, there came a point where I didn’t see her at all anymore. The communication about her condition started to be shared via social media and mutual friends I’d run into on the street. And then, all of a sudden, I heard that Sarah had passed away. See, I even have trouble writing the word “died.”
I felt nauseated upon hearing the news. My next concern was for her partner’s and daughter’s pain. What were they going through? At the same time, it didn’t seem real, and I was loath to accept it.
I needed to steel myself for attending the funeral. And then I felt guilty for needing to steel myself because I was still on this earth—eating, laughing, writing, gardening, enjoying my family. The stunning and raw reality of it all seemed incomprehensibly cruel. It made me hate cancer even more. Not to be outdone, cancer (she is such a bitch!) provided another chilling moment when my phone rang as I was getting out of my car to attend Sarah’s funeral. As soon as my feet hit the pavement, I answered and heard the shaky voice of a friend in my support group, anxious about a “weird” blood test result and other symptoms she was having. Thankfully everything she was experiencing turned out to be a different, solvable problem entirely, but it’s times like these that can make a survivor feel like she’s drowning in cancer worry. The “what if’s” that linger after treatment is done can pull at us like so many maliciously pinching fingers.
The next two losses came in fairly quick succession. An acquaintance I’d known through our kids’ school was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, the triple crown (and not in a good way) of breast cancers, the kind that people still whisper about because it is so hard to treat. She had an incredible neighborhood mom posse who took care of her and her family, but they too had lots of grief to process as they watched her endure robotic brain surgery, extensive treatment, and trips from North Carolina to Philadelphia to see a specialist.
As she neared death, social media again blew up, with a Facebook-framed plethora of photographs from better, healthier times and tributes from the heartbroken who loved her desperately. Angie was an incredible mom to two teens, a highly respected high school teacher, and, from all accounts at her beautiful memorial service, the kind of person people sought to emulate—for her unique joy, for her loving ways and pronounced lack of snarkiness, for her humor. She had the ability to make everyone she encountered feel special. She also had the kind of marriage people talk about with envy—love filled and lengthy.
I took my kids with me to her memorial service because I thought it was important, but they chose to focus on anything and everything other than the service and the matter at hand, which I understand. Parents often second-guess their decisions, but this was one of those times that showing up was more than important, if for no one else than Angie’s own children. They needed to see her legacy of love that day, in the form of a sea of faces—no matter that they were twisted in grief.
This is when I switched from the “Why me?” question so familiar to those diagnosed with cancer to the “Why her?” question.
Winter brought the most recent loss of a friend from my support group. She had traveled for years from her home in the mountains of western North Carolina to Duke and to MD Anderson in Texas for treatment. She was funky and sassy, laughing uproariously the day I met her after I complimented her on her beautiful, long hair. I was envious because I had not one hair on my head; in her inimitable Southern style, she pulled off her “hair” and handed it to me, exclaiming “You want it?!”
There was never a time that I knew her when she didn’t have cancer, and yet during these years she learned to paint from another breast cancer survivor and professional artist (and was very gifted), traveled to Italy, and went to more days-long music festivals than I could count. She had a sweet mutt who was her constant companion until his death, which preceded hers by a couple of years. I remember wishing fervently that she could have been spared that loss, what with everything else she was dealing with.
I’ve heard the elderly speak about how hard it is to lose your friends, one by one, to various maladies and old age. But it’s another frightening and enraging thing to be losing them when they’re in their thirties, forties, and fifties. I don’t know that I’ll ever let go of my desire for more justice in all this.
I have no profound suggestions for coping strategies, no miracle healing outlets. These losses have made me, simultaneously, a million times more grateful for my survival, intensely conscious of what I want my life to stand for and how I want to be remembered—loving mother and wife, compassionate friend, and change-maker for the things I care about (which include children and schools, historic preservation, a handful of political causes) would be just fine, thank you—and afraid of death.
Yes, the kicking and screaming kind of afraid. Since I was diagnosed when my kids were 3 and 6, I’ve never been able to identify with folks who talk about being at peace with whatever yet-to-be-revealed plan is in place for them. I don’t disrespect their outlook—in fact, I’d give anything for their seeming “at peace-ness.” I still remember, very clearly, feeling more desperate and helpless than I’ve ever felt. I’d picture my memorial service (morbid, I know, but your mind wanders to all sorts of never-before-visited places when you’re in the chemo chair) and then hear, internally, a Warner Brothers cartoon-like screeching-brake sound. Goddammit, I’d think. I AM NOT READY! I know cancer didn’t care, but I wasn’t.
I worried, didn’t sleep, imagined horrifying things. I continue NOT to be OK with the idea of my death. There are too many people I love, two very special ones who are now 13 and nearly 11 who need me, and myriad things I want to do, places I want to visit, beauty I want to see, art I want to make, magical moments I want to slide under my belt.
I’ve decided that since I am still here and despite the fact that I cannot make practical sense out of the last 7 years, I want to honor, via my life, in small and hopefully sometimes bigger ways, the women I’ve lost who inarguably had exemplary, limitless courage. And who mattered beyond all measure. Lemonade out of lemons indeed.