Pink-to-ber n A portmanteau coinage used by many people who live with breast cancer to refer to October, the Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is heavily dominated by marketing in the color pink and cute tags like “Save the tatas”. (See Komen, etc.)
During the month of October 2013, I am running guest posts from people with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) or who are closely involved with someone who has MBC. This was the idea of the wonderful Jody Schoger, and I think some other breast cancer bloggers are participating, too.
Today’s post is by my very dear friend Aliza Bat-Ami. This is her third guest post on the blog. You may remember in particular her account of going to the hospital to be with me for my mastectomy, almost ten years ago. Aliza had another close friend with metastatic breast cancer. Aliza is brutally honest about her experience as a fearless friend, or as she prefers to say, “a friend-alongside”. Please give her lots of comment love: she, and all our friends-alongside, deserve medals!
Like most people the number of people that I know more or less closely who have cancer – mostly breast cancer – is ever increasing. If one has no familial responsibility to the patient, then the natural reaction is to be sympathetic from afar, in fact from as far as possible. Every time I heard of another diagnosis I have a strong feeling of “there but for the grace of God, go I” – and feel guilt at my relief at each clear mammography.
However things changed when a dear friend, Nina, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
Nina came from a culture totally different from my proactive Western individualism. She was raised to value stoicism and conformity and not to question authority. She was thus the most compliant patient any doctor could wish for. Far from being proactive and seeking out the “best” treatments, she determined right at the start to trust God and her doctors. What they said, she did.
At first I just took an interest in her progress not exactly from afar, but not at any cost to myself. The moment that I was suddenly irrevocably involved was the day when I discovered that her husband, from the same stoic background as herself, was driving her to oncology clinic, leaving her there alone and picking her up four hours late. Neither Nina nor her husband thought this odd but when I heard this I was struck to the heart. (In our language we say that “my heart was pinched” – very descriptive and accurate.) I couldn’t help it – I was now involved. I didn’t know what I was getting into, just that I had to do what I could. I started to accompany her to all her treatments, arranging my work so I could do so.
For three and a half years a large part of my life was being with her and her family. It wasn’t only chemo and radiotherapy. We also managed (albeit increasingly small) celebrations of life – driving out to see spring flowers, watching sun-sets, walking by the sea.
Time went by and we observed the decline and disappearance of many of Nina’s fellow patients. Her reserves of patience and strength waned. Both of us were getting very tired and depressed as the bad days began to outnumber the better days. Only the impossibility of retreating at this stage kept me going – Nina had no choice.
Then came the beginning of the end. I was present at the first visit of the home hospice team when the social worker asked Nina what she felt about the fact that there was no more treatment. Nina replied “Joy”. That reply certainly stopped the conversation! I was thunderstruck as I finally realized that the end of our journey together was imminent and felt a terrible guilty relief at the thought.
The last three months were in fact mostly as pleasant as could be hoped for – Nina was pain free, if increasingly sleepy. She was never alone and eventually died in her own bed with her family around her. I held her hand as the pulse ceased, and I was glad that she was finally without pain.
At her funeral I thought again – it is over, now I can rest. I missed her and grieved but I had several sources of comfort. Nina had shown me so much about how to live and we had the hope and real comfort of our faith in God. A totally unexpected and unanticipated gift was becoming “in-loco-grandparentis” for some of her grandchildren (especially sweet as I have none of my own.)
Now again I have another good friend with advanced metastatic cancer. My first thought when I heard the news of her cancer was selfishly “not again! I can’t take it”, but then my heart was “pinched” again and there is no turning back. This journey is quite different, with vast differences in character and circumstances, and there are always new lessons to be learnt, as I wrote in a previous posting.
Being a “friend-alongside” of a person with cancer is most definitely not something I chose for myself, but looking back I know that I received so much more than I gave in this journey.