My heart has a hole in it. Two weeks ago, a remarkable human being in my life left this earth. This tremendous source of power and strength will truly never know how much she meant to me. Her death came as a complete shock as she outsmarted cancer several times. I never expected it to finally catch up with her. With her gift of gab, I thought she could out talk anyone or anything.
We met in a Thursday support group at the Cancer Support Community, and from my first day we immediately connected. She was facing breast cancer diagnosis number one, I was facing oral cancer diagnosis number two, but no one was keeping score. Cancer is cancer no matter how many times you’ve been up to bat.
As the newbie in the group, her thick New York accent and her let’s get straight to the point attitude, grabbed my attention when she introduced herself and welcomed me. Something about a New Yorker draws me in. My birth certificate reads Los Angeles, but I’m almost certain my DNA originates from the east coast in a previous life.
I joined the Cancer Support Community (CSC) in Westlake Village within a month of being diagnosed. As the largest professionally led nonprofit network of cancer support worldwide, the mission of the #CancerSupportCommunity is dedicated to ensuring all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community. These free services are made available to cancer patients, survivors, their families, and caregivers. I knew about #CSC because my mother belonged when she had her first breast cancer diagnosis. She’s had a second diagnosis since and thank G-d my mother is healthy today.
I showed up to the requisite new member orientation along with three strangers. In keeping up with the cliché, we were initiated into the club nobody wants to be in. Nervously glancing around the room, the fear and emptiness in our eyes spoke volumes. Most information went through one ear and right out the other, however, we watched a video, and I heard eleven simple words which changed everything - “Thousands of people survive all types of cancer at all stages.” I clung onto each of these hopeful words as though my life depended on it and for many years it became my daily mantra.
Our support group was a motley crew - mostly women with different stages and types of breast cancer, one with pancreatic cancer, another with oral cancer, and one guy who periodically showed up when he wasn’t in Hawaii. Don’t recall his diagnosis but anything in Hawaii sounds more pleasant, including cancer. Our illness didn’t play favorites - different religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, upbringings. Some married, single, and divorced. Some with grandchildren, some with kids, or no kids at all. Some were retired, others worked full-time, some looking for work. I never met a group of women without drama, and we were no exception, but our cancer connection helped us overcome our vast differences.
Over time, I privately assigned titles to a few of the members - the residential pot expert, the medical professional, recovery cowgirl, the soother, momma bear, Debbie downer, angry woman, the New Yorker, and the voice of reason to name a few. I’m sure, if asked, they had a few choice words for me as well. Hopefully, I gave them something to remember me by.
For years, this colorful bunch became my safe space to share, laugh, cry, be angry, be understanding, empathize, unload, listen, or simply be. We cycled through a few group leaders, but finally one stuck and this incredible human being with a calming voice and an easy-breezy spirit navigated us through murky waters. The best part of a cancer support group is being in a place where people just get you without judgement. The worst part about a cancer support group is people die and we lost too many.
At every stage of my journey, the Cancer Support Community provided me with a home away from home. Not only for my support group, but for classes like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and hypnotherapy, for educational workshops and lectures led by medical leaders and professionals, for social and special events, as well as for being a valuable resource for financial help, meal delivery, clinical trials and more.
My husband’s a superhero and my family, friends, and community rock, but the Cancer Support Community filled the void no one in my circle could have possibly filled, and not because they don’t care, but because they were not equipped to handle the physical, mental and emotional complexities of a cancer diagnosis. Whether it’s the Cancer Support Community, a support group at a local hospital, an on-line chat, or another organization, a support group can be a tremendous source of power for anyone touched by this disease. My touch felt more like a punch in the gut and all the support helped me absorb the substantial blow of my illness.
There was no formal ceremony or pomp and circumstance, but I eventually graduated from CSC with a degree more useful in the real world than any degree I ever earned from college. Not sure which degree I received, but it’s serving me well in post cancer life. I remain close with a few of my support buddies and periodically we catch up over coffee, go on a walk, text each other, or participate in a CSC fundraiser. Months might pass without contact, but the bond of our cancer journeys have kept our friendship intact.
Over the summer, my New York buddy faced a health crisis with a family member. Flipping roles, the patient became the caregiver. She reached out to her CSC friends once again for support and advice, and we connected every few weeks with updates, mostly positive and hopeful. However, she casually mentioned only a month or so ago she felt off and was waiting to hear back from her doctor. Her words ringed more like an after-thought like someone asking, “By the way, can you pick up milk on your way home from work?” We never spoke again. She passed-away from liver cancer. I wonder if I could have done more.
The seed of our friendship began with illness but bloomed into a gorgeous sunflower. Sunflowers never fail to put a smile on my face. We bonded over cancer as well as having two daughters, similar religious backgrounds, freckles, and shared values and attitudes about life. Her breast cancer returned a second time metastasizing to her eye which had to be removed. My cancer returned a third time and a tumor was removed from my jugular vein. Our friendship and CSC remained the shoulder we leaned on to get through it.
I miss my buddy. I miss her grittiness and authenticity. I miss her sense of humor and larger than life laugh and smile. I miss her stories. I miss her wisdom. She was a therapist committed to helping people get better. She dedicated her life to her husband and children who were the light of her life. She overflowed with the good stuff.
Thank you for your love. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for making me a better person and for making my world a better place. May you be at peace my friend and may your memory always be a blessing. XO
I DYP – Discovering My Power, My Way from my support buddy and the Cancer Support Community. Could this work for you?
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