I have cancer.
Those were three words I never wanted to hear from anyone I loved. Last September, Seana, my best friend said them to me and I didn’t know what to say in response.
The best I could come up with was, “What?”
“Yep, I already have it,” she groggily told me. “Go figure.”
With such a heavy duty history of breast cancer in her family, she and her doctor decided a preventive surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes would eliminate her from getting ovarian cancer, which she’s four times more likely to get because of the breast cancer history. But it was already there– stage three.
Numerous words rolled through my mind—many of them would be bleeped out if I were talking to children or Evangelicals. I was listening to her tell me about it while I sat in line at Starbucks. I literally had my hand out the window to pay for my grande non-fat cinnamon dolce latte when she told me, “I have cancer.”
I hope I left a tip for the bartista because I was in such a stage of shock, I couldn’t process it for a minute.
No. No! NO! She’s not supposed to have cancer. She’s supposed to grow old with me and we’re going to be the old women on the street with thirty cats each, sit our front lawns drinking beer by they keg, and yelling at kids when they walk by.
Breathe Patricia. This isn’t about you, this is about her.
“What…do you need?” I drove out of the drive thru and plugged into my GPS how far the drive would be to Maine from Texas.
Straight through? Thirty-five hours and 2227 miles.
How much coffee is that? How much pee do one of those Depends hold? How much school can the kids miss? Would they wear Depends to get us there faster?
I felt helpless. She was so far away and I had work, a husband, children in school, life obligations, but I would have jumped a plane right then if she’d asked me to. I knew she never would though. Being a parent herself, she knew the juggle of it all.
“What can I do?”
“Don’t stop being normal.” I could feel her tears over the phone.
“Well, I never was normal so that’ll be difficult.”
Admittedly, my relationship with Seana is unique. We’ve literally known each other since she was born, two months after I was. Our parents were poor college students at the University of Texas in the late sixties. At the time, they did what many poor, young college students/parents did on the weekends—sat around, drank beer, and played bridge while their kids hung out together. We slept in the same crib and were there for every part of growing up.
Now when her life got horribly complicated, I had no idea what to do.
Then I got her to laugh and I knew the only thing I could do was be present. Not disappear or bury myself in my own sadness, but when she called, texted, or emailed, I’d be there. I’d always answer, I’d always talk to her, and I’d always be normal with her.
For the next week, she told me everything on her mind. I don’t know if was therapeutic for her or for me, but she and I talked for hours about the cancer, about life, specials we saw at the grocery store, celebrity news. We texted and told stupid jokes—just like we always had.
We stayed normal with each other.
I didn’t tell her how I felt about her having cancer because I didn’t want to lay such heaviness on her. She had enough to think about but she knew me well enough that I didn’t have to say anything. She knew I was plenty worried.
Seana told me about friends who’d come to help. One woman cooked and baked all weekend for her and her son so they wouldn’t have to think about it.
A neighbor offered to clean Seana’s house while her neighbor’s husband mowed her grass.
Her bosses at work gave her amazing support and her collegues collected things like gift cards for gas and food.
One of her co-workers even blatantly asked Seana, “What the F***?” after she’d heard of Seana’s diagnosis. It made Seana laugh and she loved that the woman didn’t avoid the subject of cancer.
We decided to write an article about it for ModernMom.com. We explained to people what to say and not to say when someone is diagnosed or something rotten happens to them.
She told me the talking helped, otherwise she’d keep it all inside and go nuts.
She filled me in about her visit to the attorney, to have all her “affairs in order.” I grimaced while she spoke, hoping I wouldn’t lose it.
As if she were reading my mind, she added, “I can’t believe I’m having to do all this but I’d rather it be in place than not. Besides, my attorney said since everything was organized, nothing would happen.”
This really can’t be happening.
“Be present,” I told myself. “Keep being present.”
The following week, she went in for her major debulking surgery. That’s where they remove as much of the cancer as they could. She stayed in the hospital for five days. After the first three, she felt totally nuts.
She texted me, we talked, I sent her flowers. She vented. I sent her a movie gift basket with goodies. She loved the flowers and shared the goodies with her family.
I talked about my day and asked her about recipes (she’s an amazing chef).
During that time, my family got our first foster care placement. I explained her about the sleepless nights and the sweet baby’s adjustment.
She told me her son started a new school and she couldn’t have been happier.
We talked just like we always had.
We texted each other and everything stayed normal between us—except when cancer was mentioned, but it ended up being an additional topic of discussion. It didn’t give us pause or I’d quickly get off the phone when she’d talk about her post-surgical life. Cancer discussions were practical, informative, and therapeutic…and scary.
Still, I wished I could be right there with her. I wondered now many others were in our situation—a loved one is sick and you can’t get there. What happens?
Do they become more distant? Afraid to say anything?
Do they talk on the phone with lots of silence, neither knowing what to say?
Do they talk about everything else but the illness?
Last week she went to WashingtonDC to advocate for Ovarian Cancer funding and research. For the first time since this started, I cried on the phone with her. I think I surprised her because it hit me without warning.
“I’m so proud of you,” I sobbed. “And I’m so sorry I’m not there.”
“But you are there, here. You never left.”
And I never will.