The word cancer calls forth a variety of responses in each of us. There’s the obvious one…sorrow. That’s usually followed by relief; relief that we aren’t the ones afflicted. There are unanswered questions, followed by all the myths about what we’ve been lead to believe are a true representation of what it means to be fighting this fight. The truth is, the fight is a billion times worse than anything you’ve ever read.
In the fall of 2007 my vivacious best friend received her cancer diagnosis; stage 2 breast cancer. She was 37, married with two young kids and her life was ripe with possibilities. Clearly, her life was changed the moment the doctor spoke those three little, most powerful words, “You have cancer.” What I didn’t know, and sadly learned in the years to follow, is that fighting this disease would be life-changing for all of us; family, friends, even strangers. The person I was before her diagnosis no longer exists. That person was starry-eyed, too hopeful, and placed far too much importance on inane things in life, rather than celebrating the simple, small things.
My view of cancer is merely an outsider’s one, so please don’t misunderstand that I know anything about what it means to actually have cancer. What I do know is this…. It takes a village to fight this beast, because as with many things in life, the needs are vast. How sadly ironic that my friend frequently liked to talk about the village we were all honored to be a part of. How beautifully blessed we all were that our ‘village’ rose above and beyond, helping her and her family in the painful years to follow her diagnosis.
Caring for a sick, incapacitated loved one is not for the faint of heart. And while the person I was before The Big C rolled in never could have imagined doing some of things I was eventually called up to do, I would not trade one moment. To this day, I feel honored to have been there to help her. There’s a lot that goes into cancer care – doctor’s appointment, surgeries, on-going treatments. This is not something one can do on their own, although I’m sure there are sick folks out there doing just that. I truly cannot imagine how they do it. My friend was one of the lucky ones (if there is such a thing). She had a huge support system; loving husband, fantastic kids, and entire army of friends, relatives, and co-workers to lend a hand.
My friend fought hard. She battled and won.
Or so we thought.
She had her surgery, did her rounds of chemo and radiation, and went on to graduate from the police academy. But cancer is sneaky and vicious and brutal, and when it returned in 2010, I think we all knew that this time would be different.
And it was.
It was…horrific. It was…precious. Weird huh, to use those two words? But for every awful, pain-filled moment, there was a precious memory we were making to tuck away for the future; a future that would not include her. Those memories are simple – spending a quiet afternoon together watching TV, enjoying her son’s football game, laughing with our teenage daughters. Memories don’t need to be big and momentous. In fact, one of the many lessons I learned during those challenging years was to enjoy every little moment. You never know when it’s going to be your last.
October 26th marks 6 years since we lost her, and not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. Sometimes, those memories are very painful and the tears creep up out of nowhere. October will undoubtedly always be a rough month for us all. Grief is ever-lasting, and while it may change as the years pass, it hurts all the same. Every good, happy memory that we are now making, is always followed by the brief, sad thought, “Sure wish she were here to see this.”
Cancer changed my life, changed my children’s lives, and made us all closer in the process. Our daughters are actively involved with Relay for Life, a fundraiser put on by the American Cancer Society. Every year we attend the event, and every single year it hurts just the same as it did in the beginning. We’ve done walks in my friend’s honor. Her police badge number has been retired. My son and I have tattoos we got on the one year anniversary of her death. Life has gone on, but there will always be that one missing piece, and of course….the lingering regrets. I regret that the only child she got to see graduate from high school was my son. She should have been here to see all four of “our” kids graduate. She missed my son’s wedding, and even though we burned a candle in her honor, we missed her just the same. I regret that she will never see her daughter graduate from college, watch her get married or have kids. I regret that she will never see the handsome, sweet young man her son has turned into. I regret that she will never know how incredibly strong and resilient her husband has been these past 6 years. He’s a true hero in every sense of the word.
While we take the month of October to bring attention to breast cancer research, I ask each one of you to take a moment and take stock of your life. Forget about the car you drive, the nice house you live in, the vacations you hope to take. Look deep….look at the little things. Cherish the hugs, the smiles, and ALL of the ‘I love yous’. Enjoy the simple stuff – sharing dinner with a loved one or a good friend, taking a walk around the neighborhood, playing with your dog. Believe me, if ever your crazy world is upended by The Big C, you will soak up every single little bitty moment like a sponge.
The Big C might have taken my friend from all of us, but it will NEVER take away all those wonderful memories we have of her. Memories keep her alive – keep us alive – and are a constant reminder that life is too damn short, and we’d better enjoy every minute of it while we can.