Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like cancer’s following you around. Or sitting on your shoulder, waiting. Like a gargoyle or a crow. During the last 16 years, I’ve only had two consecutive years without worrying about someone I love dying of cancer. That streak ended with the discovery of Tara’s brain tumor last spring and continued a month ago when my best friend Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Cheryl’s not an online friend. We’ve known each other since 2000 when we were co-workers at a fledgling online publication called Zap2It and navigating the L.A. lesbian bar scene ineffectively: “Should I go up and talk to her?” “I don’t know. If it were me, I wouldn’t have the guts to go talk to her.” “Maybe I’ll have another drink and then go talk to her.” “Yeah, another drink then maybe… talk to her?”
I wanted Cheryl to be bisexual like me so when she said she was a lesbian I was like, “Are you sure?” Then I tried to help her. I forced Cheryl to sit next to a gay girl I knew in The Good Luck Bar and soon she was in a relationship with someone as dominant as me.
Cheryl was passive. I was aggressive. I thought her new girlfriend was walking all over her. She didn’t. We decided to go on a friendship break, which accidentally lasted four years.
When I saw her on Friendster and noticed her status was “single” I wrote her an apologetic email about judging her former girlfriend and she thanked me for being her first queer friend. When we met for drinks, I learned I had missed more than Cheryl’s failed relationship — I had missed her mother’s death. I was horrified.
Despite my absence during her time of need, when my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer Cheryl sent emails, made phone calls and dropped by with the consistency of a family member. When I told her I was afraid of what the cancer would bring, she told me insightful things like, “You’re scared your mom will no longer resemble your mom anymore but she’ll still be your mom.”
Cheryl and her partner came to visit me at my dad’s house after my mom died. She helped me transition back into living in L.A. when I returned jobless and struggling. I had to rebuild almost everything in my life, except my friendship with Cheryl. It was always a consistent, unwavering arm of support.
Nowadays, I see Cheryl at least once a week. We go for hikes. We get drinks. But mainly we eat dinner in my apartment and talk about life — what it’s like not to have moms, dating and relationship troubles, and our fears. Both of our mothers died of cancer in their 50s – hers of complications surrounding ovarian cancer, mine of breast cancer. Like most women, we have a hard time distinguishing our mothers’ paths from our own. We worry dying young is more probability than possibility.
When Cheryl’s doctor told her she didn’t like the looks of two lumps in her breast, I knew what to say. This wasn’t my first time at the cancer scare rodeo. “Consolation mode” was like slipping into a comfortable suit, using a familiar skill set that had gone dormant for awhile: I told her it wasn’t cancer. That she was too young. That her mother’s journey wasn’t destined to be hers. I Googled and emailed her statistics and stories of false alarms but the resounding thought in my head was not her.
There’s a kind of grief that starts when you sense an impending battle, one that you’ve seen people lose before. Your sadness is anchored in a knowledge of what they will lose in order to win — a pair of breasts, a head of hair. And then there are the parts of their soul that will never be the same — their sense of safety within their bodies, a mortality that will suddenly feel forever closer, their fears once deemed irrational permanently cemented. You try to remind yourself that just because some people die fighting this enemy it doesn’t mean they all die. But it’s hard to find comfort in that when you know cancer survivors always have to sacrifice major parts of themselves to win.
I went to Cheryl’s apartment over the long weekend while awaiting her results. We watched “Jennifer’s Body” and then talked about whether or not it was ominous that her doctor’s office gave her a card. “They don’t even know I have cancer yet, and they’re giving me a card. That’s gotta be bad, right?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just preemptive sympathy.”
It was not.
I got a text message at work Monday morning from Cheryl: It’s cancer. Waiting to learn more. I love you.
And then we waited some more — a week to find out what stage the cancer was. Another week to find out if the cancer was estrogen-positive or aggressive. Another to find out whether the MRI showed it had spread. Doctors don’t care about the emotional damage that the waiting inflicts. Doctors talk about wrapping muscles around implants to salvage them from radiation with the same tone they use to place their lunch order. They set surgery dates weeks from diagnoses, not caring that patients have to live with something slowly killing them in their lady parts through Thanksgiving and most of December. They don’t care that it makes some aggressive friends scream and shout for second opinions to hurry things along.
By the end of the month we knew that Cheryl’s prognosis was already better than my mother’s — her cancer was Stage II with an 80% survival rate. It was estrogen-positive, not HER2+, which my mother had. Apparently there were things I didn’t know — like that estrogen-positive cancer, unlike HER2+, is slow growing. That you can take drugs for it for years to control your hormones and prevent recurrence. That Cheryl’s journey was not my mother’s journey.
But it’s hard to believe facts. Once you know that someone so important can be taken from you, everyone’s up for grabs. And each time Cheryl asks whether she will be OK, the only answer I hear in my head is You’ll be OK…because you have to be.