Beth Gainer is an author and breast cancer survivor who writes the blog, “Calling the Shots.” She frequently posts excerpts from her upcoming book with the same title, Calling the Shots: Coaching Your Way Through the Healthcare System. The book is a primer for how to advocate for oneself through a difficult medical landscape. It includes information about finding the right doctors, how to deal with difficult medical administrators, and how to empower oneself by seizing the reins of one’s medical care, whatever the medical outcome. Pink Ribbon Blues republished an excerpt from the book last year, titled “Breast Cancer and the Blame Game.” Beth Gainer shares a story of friendship and loss, both forged in breast cancer.
This is the story of Faun and me. Personal. Difficult to write. A meeting at a support group after being treated for breast cancer brings a friend into my life. One who after a few short years will die from breast cancer.
Our story begins at the “Post-Breast Cancer Support Group,” a local support group with only one criterion for membership: You need to be done with breast cancer treatment. The support group is moderated by a social-worker-breast-cancer-”survivor” and focuses on the physical and psychological aftermath of cancer. Faun is already part of this established group. And it is one of those groups where the participants actually become friends. They eat out and shop together, call each other on the phone.
Me? I am a newbie to the group and eager to join. After all, this is the Post-Breast Cancer group, and since I am about to endure my last scheduled chemotherapy session the following day, I am anxious to learn what to expect from a post-breast cancer life. What I don’t expect is that the group’s name is nothing short of ironic. What I know now that I didn’t know then is that being post-breast cancer treatment is not the same thing as being done with breast cancer. It can — and too often does — come back. This new knowledge is now part of me. Etched in what would become my fond but tragic memories of friendship.
Anyway, at the group session Faun and I hit it off immediately. We are both originally from the East Coast and are now college professors in English, as well as writers. Each of us has a brother with whom we are close. We are in the same age range. We even look a little bit alike. Amused with how much we have in common, we can’t stop talking to each other. We exchange phone numbers and e-mail addresses and agree to get together — just the two of us — for dinner.
Life gets busy for both of us, and a few months go by. I finally e-mail Faun about our dinner, but we have difficulty coordinating schedules. Then I don’t hear from her for awhile and she stops coming to our monthly support group meetings. Finally, she stops answering her e-mail.
A member of our support group calls me one evening to tell me that Faun had to go to the doctor because of a sore hip, thinking it was arthritis. It turns out that even though Faun was treated for breast cancer and was even called “cured” it is cancer, not arthritis, that is causing her pain. Her breast cancer is back, now spread to her bones. Our co-support group member asks if I want to join her and Faun for dinner. I do. When I arrive, we both hug Faun. All three of us hang onto a belief that breast cancer metastasized to the bones can be treated as a chronic condition. We have hope.
At dinner we find out that Faun will need chemotherapy again. Her sessions will take place on Fridays. Since I don’t work on Fridays I offer to drive Faun to her chemo treatments and keep her company. She is a bit tentative. I can tell she feels more comfortable with closer friends doing such a favor. I understand.
The next week Faun calls me to say that one of her friends can’t take her to her treatment. Would I mind if she took me up on my offer? Of course. I would take her “this time.”
What starts as a one-time chemo trip turns into three years of taking Faun to and from chemo treatments on many, many Fridays. I don’t mind. Her chemo sessions weaken her immune system but they give us an opportunity to spend hours in conversation. When she feels like sleeping, I grade papers or read a book. I buy lunch so we can have “fine dining” in the chemo room. This time together strengthens our friendship.
After I drive Faun back home she always invites me in. We spend hours talking about literature and looking over her book collection. She shows me the textbooks she has written. I am impressed. We talk about how nice it would be to co-write a textbook and maybe even a book on breast cancer. It becomes our dream. We also confide our deepest secrets. Before she tells anyone in our group she is dating someone, she tells me. I’m thrilled for her.
A few weeks go by and Faun calls me, distraught. The cancer is in her liver. She cries as she tells me that her oncologist has given her a five-year prognosis. Maximum. She begs me not to tell anyone in the support group about this “death sentence.” I agree not to disclose. I ask Faun to see my oncologist for a second opinion. She does. He tells Faun that she is very ill and there are no guarantees but that he will try his best. He adds that during his career as an oncologist he has seen some amazing things. Faun hires him as her doctor.
Now that Faun is seeing my oncologist, I take her to the same hospital where I was treated for breast cancer. Every time we go to the facility I have flashbacks of when I sat in this chemo chair, that chemo room. I don’t like reliving it. But I known I’m doing this for Faun so I just allow myself to be present and mindful about how wonderful our relationship is.
My former oncology nurse and oncologist happen to see me on one of our visits and wax poetic about how great I look. I feel guilty. Over the years chemotherapy has taken a toll on Faun. She hardly recognizes herself in the mirror. Her hair is gone. She is sick so often. Her immune system is compromised. She is walking one day and her leg just breaks because treatment has made her bones so brittle. She says it was like, “the wind was knocked out of me.” These kinds of things are a daily reality now for her.
Luckily, Faun’s love life is better than her medical one. She marries the man she’s been dating. They buy a house together. Our group throws a shower for her. She gets a new job as a professor at a different college. Her zest for life is wonderful. But it isn’t enough to heal her from metastatic breast cancer. She spends half of her married life in the hospital. The last year of life is hell.
Our support group rallies behind Faun. We make tolerable meals for her and put them in containers. When she’s done with the meals, we collect the containers, wash them, and fill them up again. I visit whenever I can. If I’m sick I stay away as she has no immune system and is in the isolation part of the hospital. Some visits find us in animated conversation; other visits find me reading a book by her bedside as she sleeps. Although she looks too old for her age I see the beauty within her. She is still my Faun.
She is finally able to go home to recover. When I visit she is sitting up in bed, chatting happily, and comically ordering her husband to get us refreshments. Summer is almost here and wouldn’t it be great, I suggested, if we painted and sketched outdoors in her backyard on my next visit? We agree to do that.
A few weeks later, Faun calls to tell me that cancer has metastasized to her brain. Would I be willing to drive her to chemo again? “Absolutely.” She is angry at her situation and frustrated….and tired. And somehow I know this is our last conversation. I say, “I love you, Faun.” And she replies, “I love you too.” These are the last words we speak to each other. A few weeks later, on a beautiful July day, my friend dies. Breast cancer brings us together. Breast cancer separates us.
I am still devastated by this loss. I am incensed that too little funding goes into researching metastasis. I am infuriated at the pink hoopla that trivializes the deaths of so many. And now I write alone.
The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network will hold its 6th National Conference – ”Moving Forward with Metastatic Breast Cancer” — at Northwestern University, Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center in Chicago on Saturday – October 13, 2012 from 8:00 AM – 5:30 PM. Click here for more information. Beth Gainer will be attending.