By Judy Kirkwood*
My only clue was that my best friend had started detailing eating healthier foods in our almost daily email correspondence. She called on a Wednesday evening to tell me she had breast cancer and was having a mastectomy on Friday.
What? I was so floored that I didn’t know what to say. We had known each other since seventh grade, roughly 50 years. Obviously, she didn’t want to talk about it in detail or she would have let me know earlier. She apologized for waiting but said she didn’t want me to worry. Because she is such a caregiving type of person – she works in the field, providing services to the elderly in subsidized housing – I knew it would have hurt her to think of me agonizing over her diagnosis.
Once I accepted that, it became a challenge to dance around obtaining information about her condition versus offering support and distraction.
We’ve always laughed a lot together and I knew it was important that that not change. While not making fun of having cancer, we were able to squeeze out a few chuckles about being blindsided by life and our bodies – the absurdity of the whole thing. We had spent years worrying about our weight and what we eat as far as calories, but we hadn’t really talked about what kinds of foods provide a brewing ground for cancer: acidic. The ideal body environment is alkaline – in other words, no caffeine, sugar, red meat, poultry or even fish, or dairy. OMG, we were both so bad at chemistry in high school.
It’s also important to share tears as nothing is more detoxifying than a good cry. And we were able to do that – in moderation. It’s hard enough to keep your chin up when you have cancer, so you don’t need your best friend bawling her eyes out as if you’re going to die.
And that’s the biggest issue, isn’t it? Neither one of us wants to leave the other to deal with life on this earth without the support we provide just by being a witness to five decades of mistakes, messes, and blessed moments of joy.
Having watched her mother die of cancer, my BFF was terrified of going through the same horrible demise. I did not know her mom had chemo and radiation after her diagnosis of late stage cancer and had died anyway, 80-something days later. I wanted my friend to charge into chemo with engines blazing, but she wanted to explore alternative treatments.
That is, of course, her choice. Or, better, in my opinion, is a combination of medical and alternative treatments. All the tests have not been performed yet so I must be patient. It’s not my choice to make.
Her cancer is late stage and aggressive. Again-What? Isn’t our healthcare system set up to catch breast cancer early? Aren’t we the self-exam generation, following the example of Betty Ford, back in 1974, who had a mastectomy weeks after becoming First Lady? Haven’t dozens of celebrities brought this home more recently?
But how many of us are actually doing breast self-exams and getting our mammograms? I’ve had a number of women tell me they’d rather not know or that mammograms are as dangerous as cancer. Ladies, we have to get it together.
I don’t know what to say to my friend and she doesn’t know what to say to me, but we’ve never let that stop us from talking to each other before when things were dire. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing – trying our best to love and respect each other. And that is the best approach.
- Whatever your feelings, listen to your friend. She is the one who needs you now. Get your needs met elsewhere.
- Stay on the sunny side. Instead of picturing the worst, visualize the best outcome.
- Reassure your friend that you will always be in her children’s lives if they need a surrogate parent. This is one of the things that troubles moms the most.
- Pass along success stories, but don’t overwhelm her. Just have a few in your pocket to pull out when you need a little light in the tunnel.
- We don’t live in the same state, so I can’t cook for her – which would be problematic anyway, since I have very few dishes I can share (eggs mainly). But I will fly out at some point and hang out, doing whatever she needs to be done.
- Continue the conversation of your lives: laugh, cry, and comment on life just as you always have done. The world doesn’t stop and no one wants to live solely in a world based on cancer.
- Hope, pray, and have faith that what lies ahead will be no more or less manageable than everything that has gone before: school, parents divorcing, family abuse, times of no money and work, single parenthood, boyfriends and break-ups, children and challenges. Just be there.
Some prior posts on The Friendship Blog about coping with cancer:
- Another reason why cancer sucks
- Diagnosed with cancer and feeling depressed: Don’t isolate yourself
- Cancer is a Bitch: An interview with Gail Konop Baker
- On Healthy Women: Why friendships are so important
- How to Find a Breast Cancer Support Group
- Friendship: In sickness and health
* Judy Kirkwood is a writer, editor and wonderful friend. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors (ASJA).