Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

November 21, 2012

Essay: Surviving breast cancer, and losing so many friends

By Donna M. LaVerde
Special to The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — My friends are dying. My wonderful, funny, kind, generous friends are dying.

Sometimes I want to scream at the unfairness of it all. But then nobody ever said life was fair. My oncology counselor, who has worked with cancer patients and their families for going on 20 years, told me that when you work in this field, the deaths come in clusters. She doesn't know why, but it just happens that way. This will be my first cluster.

Unlike her, I am not "in this field" by choice. Four years ago, at age 51, I received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Like most people would be, I was blindsided. There is no history of breast cancer in my family. There is, however, a history of other cancers on both sides of my family tree.

I lost my father to cancer when I was barely 12 years old and he was 38. The first tumor was in his throat. His mother was 50 when she succumbed to pancreatic cancer. His youngest brother was a robust 70 when lung cancer stole his life. My feisty, tough maternal grandmother was 75 when they discovered cancer in her kidneys.

Obviously I'm not stranger to death; still, I am struggling big-time here.

When you have cancer, life does an about-face. Suddenly things that seemed so important — climbing the corporate ladder, paying off your mortgage, making sure your kid gets on the best soccer team — well, they just aren't all that important anymore. People matter, quality time with those you love matters, even if — especially if — they are dying.

Take one good friend of mine. She has Stage IV breast cancer. A 38-year-old registered nurse, she is a member of the military. She has climbed the ranks faster than most because she is hardworking, dedicated and determined. The military was her life.

My friend always thought she'd get married and have kids "later." There is no "later" any more. The cancer has metastasized to her bones. Most of the other young women in her support group have already died. She is hanging in, but her priorities have changed. Many in the military don't understand her change of attitude. They don't understand how her career no longer matters, that she doesn't want to work 12-hour days in administration so she can get her captain's bars. They don't get that she only wants to care for patients, not paperwork, as her life runs out.

I paddle on a 40-foot dragon boat with her and other breast cancer survivors. We talk about lost loves, and current ones, about the "perfect" guy, speed dating and cancer. We dream of our team's buying a winery, retiring there and being waited on a by a crew of handsome, buff young men (or women, depending on personal orientation). Sometimes we talk about dying.

Another friend has a heart as big as the world and two teenage kids she refuses to leave. At 58, she, too, has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. It is in her spine and has traveled to her brain. She has already outlived her prognosis by three years. Her body is so battered from both the cancer and the treatment that she is hunched like an old woman, her one arm hanging useless at her side. Still, she tries to do for others.

There's one final friend. I met her about a year ago at a cancer conference. As I write this, she is standing at her kitchen counter in the morning sunshine taking pill after pill after pill. Two years ago, she was told she had two weeks to live. She has endured horrific treatments for her rare type of cancer and continues to do so. Her oncologist told her no one survives this particular cancer. Yet she is so full of life, so happy to be alive, that I sometimes forget she is dying.

She is determined to live but is not taking any chances. In fact, she wrote and illustrated a children's book for her as-yet-unborn grandchild just in case she didn't live long enough to meet him. Her grandson is now 7 months old. The new grandma is working on the sequel.

She and I share a love of writing. She is the one who encouraged me to start teaching writing again. I am recently divorced after 20 years of marriage and four children. Devastated by the breakup of my family followed by my battle with breast cancer, I wasn't sure I could ever do anything again. My friend was sure I could.

I have not known any of these women very long, but cancer fosters an instant intimacy. I love my friends. When we make dates, I usually say something like "Don't try getting out of this by dying on me." When I go on vacation, I tell them they had better be here when I get back. We laugh. It helps. But the truth is, they might not be here when I come home.

I have been cancer-free for four years now. I have not always been grateful for that fact. Treatment was tough, and years later the side effects still dog me. Worse, though, is the fact that I have lost so very many loved ones to this terrible disease. Being a survivor is hard sometimes. I'm always glad when October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is long gone and the world around me is no longer awash in pink.

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LaVerde teaches writing for Inova Cancer Services' Living With Cancer program.