“Save the ladies, not the boobies,” says my thirty-three year old best friend about breast cancer awareness. She undergoes chemotherapy every three weeks, has had a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy. She calls herself a “flat top” and makes cheesy jokes when she is nervous about the next round. For twenty five years we have been great friends through thick and thin, but I couldn’t have anticipated coming to the one year anniversary of her chemotherapy. She will be undergoing treatment for her foreseeable future to keep the cancer at bay.
After she rang me to talk about law school--yes, this woman is also at the top of her class in law school--I asked her to help me write this article for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There was silence, a deep sigh, and she said, “Where do I start? There is so much to SAY!” She was right, it was naive and kind of insulting to ask her to reduce her experience into a one page article.Thank god we are best friends and I can really ask her anything and she knows it comes from a good place. I said, “Well, this is a psychological piece, so does that narrow it down?” She laughed, and I could hear strong gulps of her swallowing some tears.
“Ya know, the hardest thing is to focus on the living when you have all these medications that are making you feel drowsy, nauseous, or in pain.” One day after weeks of brutal chemotherapy that was accompanied by other brutal medication, she revealed a painful truth. “I have no choice BUT to do this.” I was shocked, I didn’t even consider her NOT getting treatment. “I have kids, and I want to be able to have enough time with my daughter so she remembers her mom and that I loved her.” “I have no choice but to fight.” “When people call me brave, they don’t realize I may not WANT to do this.” “I am not brave; I have to fight for more time with my kids.”
She had to put aside the betrayal of her body, “My boobies tried to kill me, fuck them.” She pushes past her own mortality or how fucked up and cruel life can be. She focuses on time with her kids and her husband, not because of spiritual enlightenment but because she loves with a force stronger than death.
“I have to remind myself that just because I am so aware in the moment: so grateful to have this time with my kids and my husband, and yet, I am so sad thinking about not being there in the future, that this is my experience and that doesn’t mean my kids or my husband are in the same state of mind.” The other day she was watching a movie with her children, and feelings of joy and fear arose in this mundane yet precious moment. Overwhelmed with her love for them and also clear that she may not see them grown, she started to cry while cuddling them, because... what mother wouldn’t? She felt guilty for crying, and felt responsible for not allowing her children to have “normal” lives more innocent of the tenuousness of life.
Now I gulped down tears, trying to say something empathic. I wanted to comfort her. I asked her, “What do you do at times like these?” “Well, I got some great advice,” she says. “It’s OK to feel this way about my kids. But when it comes up, I tell them that I am so happy to be with them.” “I keep the part about the fear of losing them to myself. Not that I hadn’t explained how they will be taken care of if something happened to me. In those moments, I focus on the love. In those moments, we focus on the living.”
I want to say that she is an inspiration but it’s not about idealizing her or making her into a heroine. If anything, her life has mainly been about humbly loving and helping others. She wants you to focus on living too, and to take care of yourself. She wants you to advocate for yourself because not all breast cancer feels like lumps or is detected by a mammogram. I write this because I love her and I want her fight not to scare you, but so you can be around for someone who loves you too. One-eighth of women will get diagnosed with breast cancer and one-third of these people will be “cured” only to relapse to “incurable” stage-IV or metastatic breast cancer. The awareness of breast cancer is not about ribbons and pink, but of a silent struggle where the love for yourself and for others is the greatest road to the cure.
More information and to donate: www.metavivor.org