Well, it’s officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I’ve decided to kick off the month by not waiting until October 13 to discuss metastatic breast cancer.
Because metastatic breast cancer is what kills and therefore should be at the forefront of the discussions and research on breast cancer. And because mets should not be short-changed by having only one day of this month devoted to it. Our society prefers the real feel-good survivor stories, but people with metastatic breast cancer are getting short-shrift, and that’s unfair.
The following is an exceedingly difficult story to write, for it is exceedingly personal, involving the loss of my very good friend, Faun, to metastatic breast cancer. Until now, I have never written about it. But I realize now is the time.
Years ago, Faun and I meet at a local support group, ironically titled “Post-Breast Cancer Support Group.” She is already part of this established support group, one of those rare groups where the participants became friends. They all eat out and shop together and call each other on the phone. The support group itself, though, is moderated by a social-worker-breast-cancer-“survivor,” and focuses on the physical and psychological aftermath of cancer.
To join this group, there is one criterion: You need to be physically done with breast cancer. (Yes, ridiculous looking back, but there you have it.)
I am a newbie to the group. Facing my last chemotherapy session the following day, I’m eager to join so I can know what to expect after I’m done with cancer. (Yes, ridiculous looking back, but I’m new to understanding the nature of breast cancer then.)
Faun is part of the group, and she and I hit it off immediately. We have so much in common: We are both originally from the East Coast and are college professors in English, as well as writers. Each of us has a brother whom we are close to. We are in the same age range. We even look a little alike. We can’t stop talking to each other, and we exchange phone numbers and e-mail addresses. We agree to get together — just the two of us — for dinner.
Well, life gets busy for both of us, and a few months go by. I finally e-mail her and ask her if we could meet for dinner. She agrees, but we are having difficulty coordinating what works for both of us.
Then I don’t hear from her for awhile. She stops coming to our monthly support group meetings. She doesn’t answer my e-mail.
Another support-group member calls me and tells me that Faun had gone to the doctor thinking she had arthritis in her sore hip, but it turns out that even though she was once deemed cured of breast cancer, the cancer has now been found in her bones. Faun is coming over to this support member’s home tonight; they are going out to dinner. Would I like to join them?
I do. We hug Faun, and all three of us hang onto the belief that breast cancer that’s metastatized to the bone can be treated as a long-time chronic disease. (Misguided, but that’s what we believe.) We all have hope. Faun will need chemo again. Her chemo sessions will take place on Fridays. As luck would have it, I am off from work on Fridays. I offer to drive her to and from chemo and keep her company during her treatments.
She’s a bit tentative, and I can tell she feels more comfortable with closer friends taking her to her chemo sessions. I understand.
The next week she calls me, telling me one of her friends can’t take her to her treatment. Would I mind if she took me up on my offer? Of course, I would take her this time.
However, what starts as a one-time chemo trip turns into three years of taking her to and from chemo treatments for many, many Fridays. And I don’t mind at all.
Her chemo sessions weaken her immune system but strengthen our friendship. They give us an opportunity to have hours of conversation. When she feels like sleeping, I pull out papers to grade or a book to read. I always buy her lunch and we have “fine dining” in the chemo room. After I drive her back home, she always invites me in, and we spend hours talking about literature and looking over her book collection. She shows me the textbooks she has written. I am impressed.
We talk about how nice it would be to co-write a textbook and maybe even a book on breast cancer. It becomes our dream.
We also confide our deepest secrets to each other. Before she tells anyone in the group, she tells me she is dating someone. I’m thrilled for her.
A few weeks later, Faun calls me distraught. The cancer has now metastasized to her liver. She cries, as she tells me her oncologist is telling her she has only five years to live, maximum. She begs me not to tell anyone else in the support group about her death sentence, and I agree not to disclose this. I ask her to see my oncologist for a second opinion. She does; he tells her that she is very ill and there are no guarantees, but he will try his best. He adds that during his career as an oncologist, he has seen some amazing things. She hires him as her doctor.
Now I’m taking Faun to chemo at my hospital’s Cancer Care Center, and I’m having flashbacks of when I sat in this chemo chair, that chemo room, etc. But I am doing this for Faun, so I just allow myself to be present with her and mindful about how wonderful our relationship is.
My former oncology nurse and my oncologist happen to see me and wax poetic on how great I look. I feel guilty.
Over the years, the chemo has been taking its toll on Faun. She is walking one day, and her leg just breaks and, as she describes it, “It felt like the wind was knocked out of me.” She hardly recognizes herself in the mirror. Her hair is gone. She is sick so often. Her immune system is compromised.
Our support group rallies behind her; we each make tolerable meals for her and put them in plastic containers. When she’s done with the meals, we collect the containers, wash them, and put new meals in.
Faun’s love life is better than her medical one: she marries the man she’s dating, and they buy a house. Our group throws a shower for her. And she gets a new job as a professor at a different college. Her zest for life is wonderful.
However, her last year of life is hell. She spends half of her married life in the hospital. I visit her whenever I can. When I’m sick, I must stay away, as she has no immune system and is in the isolation part of the hospital.
Some visits find us in animated conversation; other visits find me reading a book by her bedside as she sleeps. Although she looks way too old for her young years, I still see the beauty that is within her.
She is still my Faun.
She finally is able to come home to recover. My last visit with her was in her bedroom. She was sitting up in bed, chatting happily, and comically ordering her husband to get us refreshments. Summer is almost here and wouldn’t it be great, I suggested, if we painted and sketched outdoors in her backyard on my next visit? We agree to do that.
A few weeks later, Faun calls me and sadly tells me that the cancer has metastasized to her brain. Would I be willing to drive her to chemo again? “Absolutely,” is my response. She is understandably angry at her situation and frustrated….and tired.
And somehow I know this is our last conversation. I say, “I love you, Faun.” And she replies, “I love you, too.”
These were the last words we said to each other. A couple of weeks later, on a beautiful July day, she died. Breast cancer brought us together, then breast cancer separated us.
We had plans to co-write a book on breast cancer. Now I’m writing it alone.
To this day, I am still devastated by this loss. To this day, I am incensed that not enough funding goes into breast cancer research.
And, to this day, I am infuriated at all this pink hoopla that trivializes the death of so many people.
Ludicrous, isn’t it, that our culture likes to neatly compartmentalize diseases into their own months? Like any disease, breast cancer is not neat and certainly cannot be compartmentalized. Truth is, this disease affects us year-round.
Do you have any stories of metastatic breast cancer to share, whether it be your own or that of someone you know? I would like to hear from you.
What do you think about Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
Other insights or stories related to breast cancer are welcome.