June 08, 2022
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Trinette Reed/Stocksy United
Having a group of breast cancer friends who ‘get it’ is what makes this disease tolerable.
“It changed my sex life!”
We leaned in closer to get the details. What was this magic in a tube? Skye explained how she used it and the ensuing result: Sex was painless again.
“Wow,” I said, pulling out my phone. A bunch of us were jotting down the topical estrogen cream on our iPhone notes. Although there’s some controversy around its use, and it’s not for everyone, it’s worth bringing it up with your oncologist.
Having a group of breast cancer friends who “get it” is what makes this disease tolerable. Our gang is comprised of nine (even though one has died): Mindy, Hayley, Emily, Serena, Becca, Jen, Lisa, Skye, and me.
We met through a network of subversive whispers — a connection by one degree of separation — as friends murmured to others about our diagnoses and handed us cell numbers. And we closed that gap to become more than friends — we help one another survive.
Mindy was the original cancer queen having lived through breast cancer twice and stage 4 ovarian cancer. She was the one who we all looked to when things got rough or questions went unanswered.
Hayley arrived shaken by a de novo stage 4 diagnosis, her youngest daughter only 2 years old.
Emily showed up before her treatment began when she had long brown hair. It’s remained short ever since.
Serena and I used to have the exact same “foobs” (fake boobs), even though everyone said they looked different on our chests.
Becca wore her expanders for an absurd length of time in order to fight for what she wanted: a DIEP flap procedure.
Jen preferred a simple lumpectomy that turned into three separate surgeries to remove all of the cancer.
Lisa was the last to join our crew. She found herself crying in her car too often until we encouraged her to seek antidepressants.
Whenever we get together, we discuss our lives, surgeries, medications, lack of hair, curly hair, synthetic hair, thinning hair.
And then there’s Skye. Skye was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer and decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy to ensure she would never, ever have to deal with this again. Until it returned in her bones and liver. Then, it showed up in her brain. After that, it was found in her thyroid. And now, it’s under her clavicle where it cannot be treated. Checkmate. Thankfully, it’s behaving.
Whenever we get together, we discuss our lives, surgeries, medications, lack of hair, curly hair, synthetic hair, thinning hair. Every single one of us has made a different choice about our breasts — or lack thereof.
But there’s one thing we all have in common besides this insidious disease: One way or another, we’ve all been forced into menopause.
Menopause brings with it a certain clarity, honesty, and freedom. So does what we call “The Cancer Serum.” When we sit around the table with our coffee, there’s a noticeable absence of niceties. We don’t have time for emotional labor; rather, we prefer to be ragged granite.
When I was younger, I felt intimidated by elderly women with shrewd gazes and pithy replies. They were so sure of themselves. Even though we’re younger, we have become those women.
Before the pandemic, we met the last Wednesday of every month at Jen’s coffee shop. Then, we were forced to chat via Zoom until that felt intolerable, so we sat and shivered outside the coffee shop’s front window.
When winter arrived, we hunkered down and disconnected. And yet, we all felt each other’s presence in our daily lives. We just needed to “wait it out.” We had experience with that.
When March appeared, I anticipated someone to send a text asking to meet for coffee once again. But I was stunned to have this message pop up on my phone instead: “This is Mindy’s friend, Anne. Just wanted to let you know Mindy isn’t doing so well.”
What?! We had just talked to Mindy in December!
When I visited Mindy at her house, I saw she had dropped a noticeable amount of weight, her skin had yellowed, and she was laying on her couch which had turned into a makeshift bed.
“I’m sorry I didn’t let you all know,” she said.
“No worries,” I said through my mask, this ridiculous pandemic still raging.
“I’ll get better.”
But the following week, Mindy did not look better, only skeletal. She was fatigued and in pain. I texted our group the latest update: “F*CK! She’s declining!”
We all show up for one another, whether it’s a walk in the park, a listen when someone’s struggling, or a simple hug.
We sent Mindy words of encouragement and love.
Time is urgent with dying friends. Mindy had moved from the couch to a hospital bed in her living room, and her family began to limit visits. We had already sent Mindy bouquets of flowers, and I was sewing a modified robe with ties on the sides and front for easy access to her new medical ports and drains.
Emily was a professional masseuse and volunteered her services, and Mindy’s family was grateful and accepted her offer. The rest of us were making dinners behind the scenes, no longer in touch with our friend. Emily, however, was given access to it all.
While Mindy lay dying in her living room, Emily worked on her withering body. She touched areas forever changed by cancer. She saw things she could never unsee.
She came face-to-face with how this horrific disease could destroy others in our group — possibly even herself — all while on antidepressants to help manage her cancer PTSD. And yet, every time Emily was called upon by Mindy’s family, she showed up.
In many ways, we all show up for one another, whether it’s a walk in the park, a listen when someone is struggling, or a simple hug.
Mindy managed to squeeze out 12 additional years with ovarian cancer in her lungs. Hayley’s been here for almost 6 years. And Skye was deemed untreatable and dying 4 years ago, but she managed to pull through. Both are still on their first-line treatment.
As I said, we help one another survive.
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