When my friend Amy called me recently, I knew instantly that she was crying and in true distress. Her first words to me were, “Do you ever have really bad days?” My first word back to her was, “Yes.”
Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer after me and has survived a mastectomy, reconstruction, and six rounds of chemo. She is now living in the post-treatment world with that nagging fear that cancer may come back. That fear alone can make for a bad day but Amy had just learned of a neighbor who had died of breast cancer and she, as a nurse, had just witnessed the cancer death of a patient. It’s a reality. People die from cancer. Every day. What makes Amy — or me — immune to this reality? Both of us had cancers that did not spread to our lymph nodes. Maybe this is an indicator that we will be okay. Maybe our attitudes will help us survive. Maybe the power of prayer kicks in. Maybe luck plays a part. Maybe we will defy the statistics that say we may have a recurrence sometime in our lifetime. There’s no way to predict our futures. We can only live each day like it’s our last and fight for our lives at the same time. This is what I told Amy, anyway. It was easy advice, really — I was feeling good and positive and hopeful at the moment.
Then I learned about my mother-in-law’s neighbor — a young woman in her 30s with three small boys and a husband — who died last week from breast cancer that had spread throughout her body. I do have really bad days. And this was one of them.
This woman, Beth, was diagnosed 18 months before I was diagnosed. I knew of her breast cancer before I knew of mine. I knew that she had chemo. I knew that her hair was growing back when mine was gone. I knew that she was strong and courageous and was bouncing back to life. Until she was told that her cancer had spread. The doctors were not hopeful but she tried chemo again and at some point realized that the treatment was just buying moments of time — that she would not survive long. So she prepared to die. She accepted hospice into her home. She planned her service — with a slide show and music — and she peacefully left this world and was truly OK with her departure.
I feel crushed by sadness when I think of this tragedy. I am so sad that a young woman is gone forever. I am sad that three little boys are left without a mom and that a husband watched his wife die and is instantly trying to raise his motherless children alone. And I am sad that deaths like this are a reality.
I don’t think I will die from this disease. I know it’s possible but the only way I can really enjoy my life — now — is to believe that I am fine. So I am sad about Beth. And I am also humbled by the knowledge that young women do die from this disease. It keeps me on my toes. It reminds me to live fully, to enjoy the moment, to take advantage of opportunities before they are gone. To appreciate the world around me.
Unlike Amy, I am not yet living in a post-treatment world. I still have the safety of Herceptin treatment. And after yesterday’s dose, I have five more infusions before I am set free from the constant care of doctors and nurses and pharmacists. Set free to live on my own, without the crutch of medicine. I think I will be okay then. And I think I am lucky to have received Herceptin. Not all women are candidates for this revolutionary treatment. And it just may be the thing that makes me immune to the reality that people die from cancer.
I can only believe this is true.