For Karen, Kandis, Kim, Cathy, Holly, Anita, and Miss Carolyn…you inspire us all.
I can’t believe the number of friends I have that bear the emotional, physical, and psychological scars of cancer.
It’s like we were busy mothering preschoolers, helping with homework projects, and shopping for prom dresses, and the next thing you knew, we were planning around treatment days, sick days, scan days, and all sorts of other appointments that used to be ‘other people’s problems.’
One after another, my world became populated with women diagnosed with cancer—breast cancer, in particular. Close friends, kinda close friends, wave-at-ya-in-the-carpool-line acquaintances.
Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that that room mother was frantically trying to get us to sign up for classroom parties? It’s amazing how unbelievably fast treat bags for third graders can seem inconsequential when your calendar gets re-set in a doctor’s office. What was important suddenly isn’t; not now. Not ever again to the same degree. When what was once considered a problem, a challenge, or a troublesome issue surfaces, my survivor friends know it’s not worth the mental energy it used to command.
Whether in treatment, past treatment, or blessedly celebrating their 5- or 10-year cancer free anniversary, the to-do lists of these women are short. And sweet. And simple.
1. Beat cancer.
2. Live fully; see #1.
My most personal encounter with cancer blindsided me—totally. I didn’t even know it was on the radar as, understandably, my sweet, sweet friend, Karen wanted to get all the facts first, confirm the diagnosis, and certainly didn’t want to ‘trouble’ any of us with worry. My friend, the saint, was always thinking of others even in the face of cancer.
I was getting on a plane, heading to DC with Double D for a business trip a few years ago. We were staying at one of my favorite places in the city–the Ritz near Georgetown. It was close enough to DuPont Circle and all the hubbub of the monuments and museums, but also wonderfully close to the old, old turn of the century brick streets that are lined with fancy-schmancy boutiques and charming bistros.
We were in the jetway, boarding passes at the ready; a long line of us travellers waiting to be greeted by flight attendants and directed towards our seats.
For whatever reason, the line was moving exceptionally slow and the heavy winter air seemed to be saturated with the fumes from the jet fuel. I remember thinking, “forget about the plane crashing; the fumes are gonna get me.”
And then my phone rang.
“Have you talked to Karen yet?”
“Do you know the news?”
“Can you believe it?”
And then things got surreal. Extremely surreal.
It really, really was like they portray it in the movies when time seems to stand still…sounds got muffled, people around me started moving in slow motion, and my stare became fixed. For a moment, I was a player in a still life animation film as I literally couldn’t process what I was hearing.
The only faculty that didn’t fail me was my sense of smell. I thought the fumes from the fuel were going to suffocate me then and there…and I was okay with it.
One of ‘us’ had cancer. One of the five people I trusted most in the world was being threatened. One of ‘us’ was sick, but we all were ailing.
I don’t even remember how I got to my seat, stowed my bag, or buckled up. I was operating in disbelief like I’d never known before.
And then I had to turn my phone off for take-off.
I cried the better part of the flight, pulling it together for a moment, and then losing it again. I remember thinking I wouldn’t get off the plane in DC; I’d just catch the return flight back to Dallas and be at her house before midnight.
Not surprisingly, my best-laid plans didn’t work out that way. Turns out the plane was going on to Toronto, not Dallas, and the inconsiderate issue of purchasing another, different ticket was presented. And I had come to be with Double D. It was business for him, and I still had corporate appearances to make with him.
So I stayed. And cried. And called my sweet Karen as soon as we reached the hotel.
She had somewhat rallied since the blow earlier in the day, having retold the details many, many times already, but we both totally crumbled when we heard each other’s voice. We took turns reassuring one another (I know—how pathetic that she was comforting me!), discussing ‘the plan,’ and making promises about how we’d celebrate the victory of a clean bill of health many months down the road.
And we did.
And still do.
Years have since passed and my sweet, sweet friend is the picture of health. She’s regained the sparkle in her beautiful blue eyes. Her enviable golden hair is full and shiny. And, most importantly, she’s healthy—inside and out.
She was the first and most exceptionally dear to me to face a life-threatening diagnosis. And, because of that, my recent years fall neatly into the ‘before’ and ‘after’ category—before the call, and after the call. Before the surgery, after the surgery. Before treatment, after treatment.
And as a crazy and complicated testament to how intricately our mind and thoughts and experiences are woven together, to this day, I still can’t board a plane or catch a whiff of jet fuel without an immediate flashback to the moment. It makes me sad for a moment…but then…then I can’t help but break out into a smile and a prayer for the victory of this exceptional woman and my other friends who’ve travelled such a journey.
I’ve seen faith and strength and grace and courage more up close and personal than I ever imagined possible; she stands about 5’ 9” and wears the smile of a warrior.
Am I the only one who’s been made stronger through the example of amazing and courageous and strong friends under fire? What? You, too?