I met Cathy through Terri, a mutual friend, in January 2011. Terri had suggested I reach out to Cathy because Cathy had been diagnosed with BC just a few months before me. In fact, she was still undergoing treatments when I started my nightmare. Terri felt we would be good support for each other. And she was right.
“Hey Rebecca. I am doing OK. Feeling much better today. You can call me tonight or tomorrow night after 8:30 and we can talk. I have been thinking about u all week.”
You better believe Cathy thought of me all week. It’s what we patients do. We know how lonely and scary this experience can be. We take it personally and hope to overcome the fear just by being there for one another.
Cathy was a dental hygienist. My doctor had recommended I get a cleaning prior to chemotherapy. I asked Cathy if she could do it for me. She said yes, but with one condition:
“Just don’t throw up on me.”
She knew how nervous my stomach could get when it came to medical procedures – even the simplest kinds. She was aware I had thrown up on doctors before. But I never threw up on Cathy.
I recall how difficult it was for me to cope with my cancer diagnosis, especially at the beginning. My mind traveled to dark places – it still does. And Cathy always had comforting words to say in order to shine some light.
“My mother always tells me this. No one knows what life will bring. We have to live one day to the next. We have cancer but many people who never worry about cancer will die way before us. You must keep going. Try to keep as much of a normal lifestyle as possible. Rest when you have to but don’t sulk.”
Cathy knew how to keep things level with me. She would point out when I was being irrational about my health — because, I admit, I can be sometimes — and when it was normal to have a moment of fear. She also allowed me to be me, which was one reason why I was so appreciative of her. She understood where I came from because she could relate.
I specifically recall that time I had this pain by my liver that wouldn’t go away for months. I had the examinations done, the sonogram, and eventually the MRI. I got lucky that all was clear but I still had doubts. We hold on to the good news, but the fear never fully goes away. I told Cathy, “what if the MRI isn’t enough?”
And Cathy responded, “Lol. Spoken like a true cancer survivor, lol. I know what you mean.”
It’s so important for us patients to feel acknowledged when we express our fears, and often other patients are the only ones who can give us that response.
During treatments, Cathy and I would speak for hours on the phone. I would tell her about my side effects and she would always have some tips for me.
“Be sure to chew on ice chips during your chemo infusions. It helped me prevent mouth sores…and don’t overeat…remember to move! Go outside for walks…Take those constipation pills…Try doing normal daily-life activities…Rest…”
Cathy wasn’t only a friend, but in a way she was my mentor too. Someone I could lean on for almost anything. I looked up to her and respected her for all she had overcome. Cathy was also a very kind soul. And beautiful.
Eventually, both Cathy and I finished treatments, except for the hormone therapy we both had to take as a preventive measure. We were relieved to be done with chemo and radiation. But we also knew that we were not finished with cancer, although people wanted to believe we were. And boy, were we glad to have each other to tell things we couldn’t easily express to anyone else.
Survivorship became another set of challenges. The follow-up appointments made us both nervous but she was always there for me. I was there for her too.
“Good morning. You will do great. Let me know when done. Xoxo”
And also while waiting for those test results.
“Breathe. Prayers coming your way. I am sure you are fine but until you hear those words. Xoxo”
Cathy and I exchanged a lot of personal details about our lives, including our fears. Cathy loved her family so much. We laughed. We cried. We even had a plan to start our own TV show called, “The Cancer Talk”. It was supposed to be about situations patients go through that no one else wants to hear about because it’s just too heavy to deal with. It was supposed to be about the reality/facts of living with this disease. We also realized the show would have had very low ratings because our society is not interested in REAL reality shows.
Things seemed to be going well with both of our health. There were a few scares, but overall, we were doing alright. We tried living our lives as normally as we possibly could. And there were more good days than bad days.
Until one day, I received a text from Cathy that there was an “incidental finding” during a pre-op procedure. I thought that perhaps it was related to radiation scarring. Or one of those annoying scares she had previously gone through. But I was wrong. This turned out to be the beginning of a series of new problems in Cathy’s life. She did not get a break. And I was not able to help her the way she helped me.
“I can’t believe that after all these years they can’t really help people w stage 4. Is there a chance for remission. Long term remission? Do I pray for that? Do I just pray for stability?”
I did not have the answers for Cathy. And no one else did either because there is not enough research funding for metastatic breast cancer.
I felt angry. Scared. Confused. Sad. I still am. I did not understand why this was happening to my friend. Yes, I am aware it happens all the time, to so many people (to 30% of breast cancer patients, at least). But I believed, in my heart, she was going to be OK. I really wanted her to be well. For her two children. Her husband. Her family. For me.
One thing that made it difficult is that I was not able to fully understand her new diagnosis. I tried. I read. I looked up information on clinical trials. I reached out to online friends who are now stage 4 to try to connect them with her. But no matter how much I wanted to help her, it always felt like I was failing her. We were no longer dealing with early stage. Metastatic breast cancer is something completely different. She needed some hope.
At times, I felt like I was overwhelming her. I decided to give her some space to allow her to breathe. But Cathy was still my friend. There was no way her new diagnosis was going to get in the way of our friendship. She would often reach out to me instead.
“Text me. Don’t be silly. Miss you. I’ve been so busy getting kids back to school schedule.”
Still, I would feel guilty whenever I would express “normal” life frustrations to Cathy. But Cathy appreciated being treated like a normal person, because she was.
“xoxo. Don’t feel bad to vent. My problems don’t outweigh yours. We have to find a way to live.”
Now, I need to find a way to cope without you in my life, Cathy.
Let me explain what Cathy represented to me so you can all understand me:
When I was originally diagnosed, I felt like I was left inside this really dark room. I kept hearing voices coming from different directions of this room, people trying to help me. However, the room still felt dark despite all the support that came my way. Then suddenly, I saw glimmers of light. These lights represented patients who had walked my path and who were willing to guide me through the darkness. There’s nothing that can compare to the support of other patients (and I am not saying other types of support aren’t needed or don’t help). Among those lights, Cathy was the brightest of them all, because we weren’t just two patients trying to seek support. We were also friends. Now, with Cathy gone, I feel like my room just got a little darker. And as I sit here in my darker room, I’m hoping that the lights that are left never go off.
This summer, Cathy and I had not been in communication that much, and somehow I felt something was not right. Here’s another thing about Cathy: she never wanted to worry me. She tried to protect me. All the times I asked how she was doing, her response was usually the same, “OK, just trying to live with this awful disease.” And sometimes, Cathy would open her heart to confess her fears.
Then she would apologize to me. Protecting me again.
Still, I worried about her all the time.
In August, I texted her to check up on her. I got no response. That is not like Cathy, I thought. I let it rest since I knew she had so much to deal with. But days went by and I didn’t hear from her. I got worried so I contacted her family who told me that Cathy had been at the hospital and her health was not good. To please visit.
My heart stopped for a moment. I had to be with my friend.
That day, I went to the hospital to see her. I felt this huge sense of desperation and despair. I could not believe what was happening, but I felt privileged to be by her side. I told her I’d come back, and I did.
The last time I saw my friend was a very difficult day. It was the day I had been informed that the doctors could no longer do anything for her. My heart was crushed. I felt grateful that I was able to spend some time with her once again. I held her hands. And she held mine. I kissed her forehead. Told her I loved her, several times. She pointed at her heart and looked into my eyes like she never had before. Then, I walked out of her room with tears rolling down my face. And feeling so helpless.
I’ve saved most of the text messages Cathy ever sent me. As I was browsing through my messages today, I came across a random quote from my friend. I thought it was a nice one to share and to always remember:
“Try not to worry and get caught up in cancer. Enjoy your health. And live!!!”
I’m gonna miss that girl so much.