Out of respect for my friend, whom we’ll call “Jane”, I’ve refrained from discussing this issue up until now, but I have to beg forgiveness because I can’t deal with it any more without unburdening myself. I’m ashamed of myself for being so weak.
Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, and went all out with every known treatment. She had a mastectomy. She went through radiation and chemo, and then took hormone therapy (Tamoxifen) for five years, until 2003. She doesn’t remember what stage the tumor was, which defines what kind and how much treatment you get, and in the end it doesn’t matter. Many women choose to take the route of the most aggressive treatment possible, even if it isn’t necessary, because of what I’ve previously called the “spider in the hair” phenomenon. Get it off me. Ick.
Fast forward to 2006. Jane was by my side when I woke up from surgery and was told by the surgeon that the suspicious area in my breast was indeed cancer. Thank God for Jane. She directed me to this surgeon in the first place. Told me what medical oncologist to see and what radiation oncologist to ask for. Prepared me for what to expect. Jokingly, I used to call her my Spirit Guide, partly because she’s a very New Age kind of person.
Oddly, at the very same time this happened to me and I was quite preoccupied with Me, Jane got an upper respiratory illness…a cold or the flu or something, and they sent her for a chest X-ray, which as she later said “lit up like a Christmas tree”. There were abnormal spots on the bones of her ribs. She made an appointment with the medical oncologist to discuss it, but as I recall, it was before that appointment that she developed excruciating pain in her face, along with paralysis, and had to go to the ER. She managed to get herself there, but I took her to have the MRI she had the next day or so, turnabout being fair play.
The result: Her breast cancer had metastasized to the bone. Not to be brutal, but when that happens, it will kill you unless something else kills you first. Since then, she’s had several bouts with chemo, traveled to Boston for a second opinion about her treatment, continued to work, and maintained a positive attitude that verges on sainthood.
But late last year, she fell and broke her hip. She had surgery and was doing well, and was back at home. On Friday, I learned that Thursday of last week, she fell again at home. This time she broke her leg, a spiral fracture of the femur, she tells me. She had another surgery, and is now in a rehab hospital for an unknown length of time. And her life as she knew it is toast. She’s been fortunate to work for a government agency, with excellent benefits and a program where other people can “donate” their unused sick and annual leave to her, but by the end of this month, she will run out. So she’s applying for disability, something she had hoped to avoid.
You may think that I’m only thinking of myself–that I fear something similar will happen to me, since cancer metastasis is unpredictable. That watching this happen to her scares me. You would be totally wrong. I have a very advanced case of denial. It was hard enough for me to believe I had cancer in the first place. I’m even better at denying I will ever be in Jane’s shoes. But it’s more than that. I know it could happen, but I don’t choose to live that way. You could wake up every morning being afraid to go out of the house because you could be hit by a bus. Or not. I choose “or not”.
So the real problem is that there is no manual for dealing with a friend dying. She says she likes my demeanor. I don’t hover and baby her. If she feels bad, I’m likely to cover her with a blanket and say nothing. I know that’s important. Like me, she’s terribly independent. I hope that continues to work. But it takes an emotional toll on me to maintain that neutral attitude, when what I want to do is break down in tears and say, “Don’t go”. But no matter what, I will find a way to keep doing it. I’ll have to find someone else to comfort me. It isn’t her job. She’s busy enough.