Here, There and Everywhere

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A Sister’s Promise

imagesInterview with Nancy Goodman Brinker. An excerpt from the book Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

Susan G. Komen was married, with two small children, when she was given a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. She fought a valiant fight with every known treatment at the time, until her body could withstand no more, and died in 1980. Before she passed away she had her younger sister, Nancy, promise to find a cure for the disease that was afflicting so many women across the country. Nancy thought the world of her “big sister” and though she was in the depths of despair, and “utter hopelessness”, she promised “Susie” that she would do everything within her power to find a cure.

Two years later, Susie’s little sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, started the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and brought breast cancer to national attention, becoming the largest private nonprofit group in the world devoted solely to funding breast cancer research. Since 1982 the foundation has raised over 100 million dollars! Over half a million people now run in their annual 5K “Race for the Cure” in cities across America. They were instrumental in getting the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp for Breast Cancer Awareness; have galvanized the undergarment industry to provide labels on their clothing which advocate breast self-examinations; and inspired countless well known politicians and celebrities to publicly speak about their personal encounters with the disease. 

NANCY: I came from a large extended family. My mother has been my greatest role model. She was very close to her family. She weathered losing so many she has loved. She was the only child in a family where there were several uncles and aunts. Many of these uncles and aunts were more like older brothers and sisters, because she was an only child. My Mom had nine aunts and uncles combined, who had a total of four children between them.

Mother ended up being a caretaker and very close to these uncles and aunts. Except for one or two, she literally nursed them all until they died. I use to spend a lot of time with her when I was growing up, taking care of some of them, going to see how some were doing; watching her suffer many losses and then of course my sister. Mother always had the most optimistic attitude, you know, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” She lost her mother when she was only twenty, so she taught me about loss. I still find it so very sad.To tell you the truth, even now I don’t know if I have learned to really deal with it. There must come a point in your life where you never stop grieving but you just take action, you just go forward.

I honestly don’t know how my mother has dealt with all the losses in her life, particularly one uncle who she loved very much and was like a brother to her. That was the one time I really saw her fall apart. It took her a long time to get over that one. I saw her crying in bed, grieving. Ordinarily my mother is compassionate and full of feelings, yet also stoic and able to go on. This one took a lot of her . . . this one uncle’s death. He loved, supported, helped and listened. He was just wonderful to her. He was gentle and kind and I think that he rounded out her life, gave her the comfort that a parent would give a child. He was her mainstay.

She had a supportive family with all her uncles and aunts around. She was an only child so I think she was a little more used to being alone then some of us are. But this one uncle’s death was very sudden and it was tough for her. She weathered through it. She is a very special person, my mother.

Loss was a part of our life. We’re Jewish and mother had lost family in Germany during the war. I wasn’t old enough to know about it when the war was going on per se, but I knew to the extent that we had relatives who were lost in Europe and the war. We talked a lot about that and how precious life is.

When Susan died the thing that helped me the most was focusing all of my energy on fulfilling her dream and last request, which was to cure breast cancer. I had to do this in her memory. I really wanted to do it. We had been through such a siege.

Luckily, I had met and married a wonderful man just after having gone through an awful divorce. I think focusing all my energy and working as hard as I could on the Komen Foundation, raising my son, and being a wife, helped me get through a lot.

I don’t really remember anything specific that people said or did, except one person who helped a lot. He was a Rabbi that we had in Peoria at the time. We went to see him towards the end of Susan’s illness. We wanted to know how to deal with the children and how to deal with her. He told me what to say and how to say it. He said, “Don’t lie and tell her everything is going to be OK . . . she’ll be OK. She is not going to be OK. What you have to do is learn to be sympathetic and it is awful, you don’t know why it is happening. You wish it weren’t happening. You don’t know what to do about it. And that you love her very much and you’ll be there till the end and do everything you can.”

As the years have passed I don’t think I miss her any less. I probably miss her more. I’m getting older and would love to have my sister with me. We were best friends. I think in one way your circle of friends and people narrows, it doesn’t grow it narrows. What’s important in my life now is different then it was. I have learned that there are very few people in life who love you unconditionally. I think sisters are like second mothers if you will. There was unconditional love there. We could say anything we wanted and be totally frank.

In a lot of ways the Komen Foundation has fulfilled a lot of what we had hoped for. It’s funny. I’m not a person with supernatural beliefs but we have always said that we have a Komen angel and it’s Susie! When things start to go wrong she’s there, something turns and it goes right. I can’t explain what I mean but believe me it’s there. I don’t believe in angels in the traditional sense, but I do believe in angels. I don’t know what it is, but there is some spiritual holdover. It’s certainly not in the normal body, but there is something to this and I just can’t quantify it. I have felt her presence on several occasions, so I know it’s there. I don’t know how to describe it to you.

One day I was driving in my car, looked up and there was golden light everywhere in the car. It was like a shower of golden light and I knew she was there. It was very, very interesting. In fact, I was driving down to one of our big Komen events, one of our big luncheon events. It was about four or five years after we’d started and I just had this feeling. It was amazing. There have been other times, particularly at the Races for the Cure, when I felt she was there watching. She’s there, sitting up there watching. I don’t mean to say it’s a different world or inhabiting a different world.

There have been many times when I have almost quit this work. I’ll say, “I can’t do it anymore, it is too hard.” Then something will happen, something very satisfying will happen. I have asked for guidance, “Show me what I am doing.” If I listen and watch the cues it always happens that I find what I am after. There is something very spiritual about this work. There is something almost other worldly about it.

I think it is God’s will and I think there is a lot of randomness in life too. I think that if you are chosen to do something or if you put yourself in the path of being chosen to do something, somehow the circumstances all fall into place. Then you have an obligation to do it. I have been very well fed. I am well taken care of. There is no reason for me to do anything else. There is no reason for me not to do this. I must do it. For me to spend my time at anything else would be wrong, just not right.

Just playing and having a life of leisure is not my style. But it isn’t that it is just not my style, it’s also the fact that there is a lot of work to be done. I wasn’t given the opportunity to do what I do without a reason.

Sometimes I get back a lot from the work and other times I don’t. But it isn’t what I get back from it, it’s what happens, it is how well I do my job. If I do my job well and at the end of the day people’s lives have been saved and we have moved along, then I feel good. It keeps refueling the reason for why I’m here. It’s like I am on a mission.

I don’t understand why Susan died and I lived through my cancer. I have no reason to understand it, except that she was born premature and for some reason her immune system may not have functioned as well. I may have been given a longer period of time to do this work. I don’t know. Believe me, there were times I wish I could have fought her battle for her. I think I was diagnosed with this disease to unfortunately understand, on a very personal level, besides everything she went through, what it was.

Looking back there are few regrets. I wish that I had had a little more time to be, well . . . I would have liked to have had another child. At the time they advised me not to. With breast cancer they weren’t suggesting that people go on and have more children. Today it would be different. I missed out on a lot of things with my son when he was young. He’s turned out, thank God. There are times I wished I had had a little more time and hadn’t had to stay up all night worrying about things. I have been so intensely involved in my cause.

I have some wonderful friends, but I don’t think I’m particularly popular on a personal level. I think people like me, basically view me as strong, you know? But there are things, that because I am an agent of change, I’m not the person you would just call to go play with. My friends are wonderful and they tend to include me, but I know they don’t think of me as being a cozy person. I’m intense about everything I do. I’m sure they feel uncomfortable. I wish I were more low key. I’m just not. No matter how hard I try I’m not wired that way. So I try to cope and handle it, but it just doesn’t seem to work out for me.

On the other hand I’ve learned to not be afraid to take something on that seems impossible. My father was my role model for success and achievement. With enough commitment, courage and persistence, especially persistence, you can overcome almost everything. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. I’m not. I have largely been successful because I surround myself with extremely bright people who are much better at everything then I am. Don’t be afraid.

More inspiring stories at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

As Easy As Counting To Eight

Did you know that you can go to The Hunger Site and Click To Give daily and donate (for free through various sponsors) to these causes/issues?

MSF_Value_Espen25c_MonthlyGift_160x600_LP-Alternate7.50Hunger

Breast Cancer

Animals

Veterans

Autism

Child Health

Literacy

Rainforest

With each click 5 cents are donated to the specific organization. It may not seem like much, but if you do it daily it can add up to several hundred dollars in a years time.

Go to The Hunger Site can click on the buttons at the top of their home page.

It also connects you with other sites such as Doctors Without Borders.

Donate Daily

Did you know you can donate to eight different organizations daily and not have to personally pay a cent?

The site is called Click to Give and includes the following sites (below). Every time you click, different companies donate 5 cents. It may not sound like much, but it adds up if you do all of them every day – about $145.00 per year. In seven years, that’s over a thousand dollars.


The Hunger Site

The Breast Cancer Site

The Animal Rescue Site

The Veteran’s Site

The Autism Site

The Child Health Site

The Literacy Site

The Rainforest Site

All in one place at Click To Give.

The Barking Seal Admiration Society

Story from Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans

The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 1

My sister Joanne had come, for respite, from our hometown of Modesto, a land-locked metropolis eviscerated in the the scorching Sacramento Valley in Northern California. We were spending the afternoon on the wharf in Santa Cruz, a city on the edge of the Monterey Bay, just a touch south of San Francisco by way of Highway One; a scenic, precarious strip of pavement, hugging the coast like a black snake.

I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for twenty odd years, but you wouldn’t know it by the looks of me. My usual slacks, short-sleeved dress shirt and wide-brimmed Fedora, to cover my receding brown hair and shade my ever paling skin, stands in stark contrast to the shorts, wet suits, Hawaiian prints and Birkenstocks worn by most of the tanned, beach-faring home grown crowd. I don’t surf, the ocean’s much too cold for my liking; and I hate it when sand gets in my socks and shoes, grating roughly against my skin. To top off the oxymoron of my seaside existence, my work with an advertising agency in San Jose, though personally rewarding is not something I flaunt in this liberal college town.

Holding her floppy white straw hat, Joanne skipped down the old wooden peer, her right arm swinging freely. The pier stood on creaking stilts of old oak pylons that had been driven into the sea floor at the start of the last century. A space in the middle of the pier had been created for tourists to feed the seals. Joanne stopped at the railed opening to see the gluttonous sea creatures lounging on the braces below. As I caught up, she barked, clapped and laughed loudly, imitating the chubby, sumo-wrestling otters’ boisterous demands for food.

She was laughing like she had when we were two little toe heads. I remembered the times she interrupted my Lone Ranger play, as I made serious sound effects of guns firing and bullets ricocheting past my head. I wore my plastic red cowboy hat and holster and she’d be outfitted as a petite ballerina; her blond pigtails held to the side by bright pink, silk ribbons.

“Get out of the way!” I’d yell, pointing my six-shooter at the bad guys. She danced closer. “Stop it Jo!” I’d yelled again, using the form of Joanne she hated. She danced closer still, twirling, curtseying, falling and playing dead; her square-toed, laced ballet shoes sticking straight into the air. Everyone knows ballerinas and cowboys don’t mix, but she would keep jumping up and falling down, giggling and laughing, with total disregard for my need to save the land from desperados. Unable to keep a straight face, I’d holster my guns and clap at her performance, just like I’d seen our mother do before she’d died of cancer.

Joanne was still barking at the seals when a skinny woman wearing a blue-green scarf joined in. Momentarily startled, Joanne stopped and stared. Realizing the stranger wasn’t any crazier than herself; she smiled, laughed and resumed her barking and clapping. hey were like mimicking mimes imitating an innocent bystander.

The new addition to the barking seal admiration society turned and clapped towards Joanne, who eagerly returned her applause. They both bowed, barely avoiding knocking each other in the head. The woman’s scarf slipped forward and fell, revealing a shiny hairless scalp. She grabbed the cloth by the corner before it hit the pier. She stood grinning with the brilliance of a sparkler and quickly wrapped and tied her silk scarf. Joanne took off her hat and briskly rubbed her short soft brown curly tufts.

Feeling somehow drawn to this barking skeleton with no hair, I moved closer and listened to the enraptured duo, as the lady pointed at Joanne and said, “Chemo?”

Joanne nodded. They hollered, squealed and embraced; as if they were long lost sisters.

“Robin,” the woman exclaimed, bowing slightly.

“Joanne.” She curtsied.

They hugged again. Joanne, holding the sleeve of Robin’s full length, blue print dress, turned her in my direction. “This is my big brother Rueben; my great protector and occasional pain in the butt,” she snickered. “This is Rob . . .”

“Robin,” I interjected. “I heard.”

Dispensing with my usual reserve, I took Robin’s hand, knelt on the wood planks and kissed the back of her thin wrist. “It’s a pleasure, Ms. Robin.”

She bent her knees and bowed her head formally. “The pleasure is all mine Sir Rueben.”

I stood, offering my hands as their princely escort. Joanne, on my left, placed her right hand on mine, as Robin did the same on my right. With her free hand Robin lifted her dress a few inches, as Joanne pretended to do likewise, though she wore pants. We walked regally towards the bench at the end of the pier, with our noses turned theatrically skyward.

I brushed off the bench, pretended to place a cloth upon it and invited them to sit on their royal throne. They sat, squished comfortably together, as I descended onto the thick weathered wood next to Robin.

“Come closer,” she said, grabbing my pant leg and pulling. “It’s chilly out here.”

I snuggled closer. The waves thumped against the pilings below. We watched the surfers, as they drifted around the rising swells, waiting for the crest of a perfect wave. When their experienced eyes saw nature’s roller-coaster approaching, they began paddling and stood bravely on their miniscule pieces of wood; daring the foamy, curling blood of the sea to give them a thrill before extinguishing itself on the sandy shore. I thought about trying it once or twice, but the idea of swimming in freezing water, sharks, stinging salt-water in my eyes and the possibility of drowning; made my fledgling desire vanish faster than a crowd of punk rockers exiting the concert of a polka playing accordion band.

“Was it breast cancer?” Joanne asked, breaking the comfortable silence.

“Still is,” Robin said, matter-of-factly. “It’s such a happy camper, it’s decided to pitch tent.”

“I’m sorry,” Joanne said; her face transformed into a Japanese Kabuki mask of sorrow.

“Not your fault,” Robin replied dreamily, looking past the horizon. “Not anybody’s fault.”

“What a rotten deal,” I said.

“Yep, a rotten deal,” she said softly and exclaimed, “I’m starved.” She stood, took hold of our hands and tried pulling us off the bench. Her grip was surprisingly strong. “Sir Rueben,” she bowed. “Lady Joanne,” she bowed again, “Queen of the barking seals. Let us partake of some fine delicacies at the great dining hall of fish and chips.”

Turning our backs to the sea; Robin promenaded, with her two newly aggrieved squires, past the barking seals and tourists snapping pictures, towards the castle of greasy potatoes and dead fish meat.

After finishing a second order of fried breaded cod at Barcello’s Fish Fry and stacking the grease stained, white and red checkered throwaway containers in a heap; Robin grimaced and lurched forward.

“I think I’m going to be sick!” she covered her mouth.

The waitress behind the counter, who was as worn and painted over as the pier itself, noticed Robin’s distress and came as fast as her arthritic knees would allow.

“You OK?” she barked, with an urgency that implied, “You better be.”

Robin put her hand on the spotted Formica top and rolled her head from side to side. I placed my hand between her shoulder blades, moved my fingers up her spine and massaged her neck. Leaning closer, I heard her laughing under her breath. She looked at me and smiled, then jerked upright, “Just kidding!”

Joanne rolled her eyes with relief. The waitress was not amused. “Ha. Ha,” she scowled, lumbering back to the other end of the counter, muttering silent obscenities.

“Why’d you do that?” Joanne admonished, “It wasn’t funny.”

“Hey,” Robin replied, “When did you turn into the queen of pathos?”

Joanne’s frown turned into a smile, as she pushed Robin’s shoulder.

“Ouch!” Robin yelped, clasping her shoulder and grimacing with pain.

“Oh no,” Joanne’s face contorted once again. “I’m so sorry.” She looked at Robin with alarm. “Are you OK?”

Robin’s mischievous grin returned. She winked, letting Joanne know the joke was on her.

“Why . . . you!” Joanne waved Robin off good naturally and pushed her on the shoulder again as Robin renewed her painful grimace, then laughed hysterically, almost spitting with pleasure.

Robin turned discreetly in my direction and whispered, “I’ll act sick more often, if you promise to rub my back like that again.” I started to look away but couldn’t. She took my hand like a precious jewel and stroked it as gently as a soft kitten. “You have beautiful hands,” she purred. I glanced over her shoulder and saw Joanne watching out of the corner of her eye.

As we headed towards the car to pay the meter, not wanting to pay thirty-five dollars for a two-hour stroll, because of a parking ticket, it seemed as if the three of us had been together all day.

Reluctantly, we took our leave, as Joanne was driving back to Modesto that afternoon and offered Robin a ride.

“I’ll walk. Thanks,” she said, looking admiringly at the sky then back at me. “It’s such a beautiful day. I don’t live far.”

Joanne gave her a long hug. “Thank you,” she said.

“For what?” Robin asked.

“For reminding me how good it feels to laugh.”

“What else is there?”

They held each other’s hands, one on top of the other. Robin gently extracted her fingers from Joanne’s and turned her luminous eyes on mine. I wasn’t sure what to say or how. It felt like I’d known this woman all my life.

“Let’s go Rueben,” Joanne broke in. “I’ve got to get packed.”

My lips parted and crackled a stifled, “Goodbye.”

Robin stood quietly, nodding farewell. I started to walk away, when a desperate surge of adrenaline turned me around. Robin hadn’t budged. I hurried back.

“Could we . . . ah . . . get together sometime?” I said.

“I thought you’d never ask,” she smiled suggestively, reaching into her shimmering dress pocket and handing me a card.

Lowering my hat against the sun’s glare, I read. “Robin Magnolia. Consultant.”

“Consultant for what?” I wondered out loud.

“Surfing,” she replied, taking my hand in hers and kissing me on the cheek.

“Surfing?”

“Life surfing,” she whispered. Call me.”

“I will.”

Joanne shouted, “Come on Rueben! I’ve got to go.”

“See ya,” I said, letting her hand drop and heading towards the car. It took all my strength to not spin around and take her in my arms.

Part 2 (Conclusion) Tomorrow

MORE STORIES

A Cure For Susie

Susan G. Komen was married, with two small children, when she was given a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. She fought a valiant fight with every known treatment at the time until her body could withstand no more and died in 1980. Before she passed away she had her younger sister, Nancy, promise to find a cure for the disease that was afflicting so many women across the country. Nancy thought the world of her “big sister” and though she was in the depths of despair and “utter hopelessness” she promised “Susie” that she would do everything within her power to find a cure.

Two years later, Susie’s little sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, started the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and brought breast cancer to national attention, becoming the largest private nonprofit group in the world devoted solely to funding breast cancer research. Since 1982 the foundation has raised over 100 million dollars! Over half a million people now run in their annual 5K “Race for the Cure” in cities across America. They were instrumental in getting the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp for Breast Cancer Awareness; have galvanized the undergarment industry to provide labels on their clothing which advocate breast self-examinations; and inspired countless well known politicians and celebrities to publicly speak about their personal encounters with the disease. The following excerpt is from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

NANCY: I came from a large extended family. My mother has been my greatest role model. She was very close to her family. She weathered losing so many she has loved. She was the only child in a family where there were several uncles and aunts. Many of these uncles and aunts were more like older brothers and sisters, because she was an only child. My Mom had nine aunts and uncles combined, who had a total of four children between them.

Mother ended up being a caretaker and very close to these uncles and aunts. Except for one or two, she literally nursed them all until they died. I use to spend a lot of time with her when I was growing up, taking care of some of them, going to see how some were doing; watching her suffer many losses and then of course my sister. Mother always had the most optimistic attitude, you know, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” She lost her mother when she was only twenty, so she taught me about loss. I still find it so very sad.To tell you the truth, even now I don’t know if I have learned to really deal with it. There must come a point in your life where you never stop grieving but you just take action, you just go forward.

I honestly don’t know how my mother has dealt with all the losses in her life, particularly one uncle who she loved very much and was like a brother to her. That was the one time I really saw her fall apart. It took her a long time to get over that one. I saw her crying in bed, grieving. Ordinarily my mother is compassionate and full of feelings, yet also stoic and able to go on. This one took a lot of her . . . this one uncle’s death. He loved, supported, helped and listened. He was just wonderful to her. He was gentle and kind and I think that he rounded out her life, gave her the comfort that a parent would give a child. He was her mainstay.

She had a supportive family with all her uncles and aunts around. She was an only child so I think she was a little more used to being alone then some of us are. But this one uncle’s death was very sudden and it was tough for her. She weathered through it. She is a very special person, my mother.

Loss was a part of our life. We’re Jewish and mother had lost family in Germany during the war. I wasn’t old enough to know about it when the war was going on per se, but I knew to the extent that we had relatives who were lost in Europe and the war. We talked a lot about that and how precious life is.

When Susan died the thing that helped me the most was focusing all of my energy on fulfilling her dream and last request, which was to cure breast cancer. I had to do this in her memory. I really wanted to do it. We had been through such a siege.

Luckily, I had met and married a wonderful man just after having gone through an awful divorce. I think focusing all my energy and working as hard as I could on the Komen Foundation, raising my son, and being a wife, helped me get through a lot.

I don’t really remember anything specific that people said or did, except one person who helped a lot. He was a Rabbi that we had in Peoria at the time. We went to see him towards the end of Susan’s illness. We wanted to know how to deal with the children and how to deal with her. He told me what to say and how to say it. He said, “Don’t lie and tell her everything is going to be OK . . . she’ll be OK. She is not going to be OK. What you have to do is learn to be sympathetic and it is awful, you don’t know why it is happening. You wish it weren’t happening. You don’t know what to do about it. And that you love her very much and you’ll be there till the end and do everything you can.”

As the years have passed I don’t think I miss her any less. I probably miss her more. I’m getting older and would love to have my sister with me. We were best friends. I think in one way your circle of friends and people narrows, it doesn’t grow it narrows. What’s important in my life now is different then it was. I have learned that there are very few people in life who love you unconditionally. I think sisters are like second mothers if you will. There was unconditional love there. We could say anything we wanted and be totally frank.

In a lot of ways the Komen Foundation has fulfilled a lot of what we had hoped for. It’s funny. I’m not a person with supernatural beliefs but we have always said that we have a Komen angel and it’s Susie! When things start to go wrong she’s there, something turns and it goes right. I can’t explain what I mean but believe me it’s there. I don’t believe in angels in the traditional sense, but I do believe in angels. I don’t know what it is, but there is some spiritual holdover. It’s certainly not in the normal body, but there is something to this and I just can’t quantify it. I have felt her presence on several occasions, so I know it’s there. I don’t know how to describe it to you.

One day I was driving in my car, looked up and there was golden light everywhere in the car. It was like a shower of golden light and I knew she was there. It was very, very interesting. In fact, I was driving down to one of our big Komen events, one of our big luncheon events. It was about four or five years after we’d started and I just had this feeling. It was amazing. There have been other times, particularly at the Races for the Cure, when I felt she was there watching. She’s there, sitting up there watching. I don’t mean to say it’s a different world or inhabiting a different world.

There have been many times when I have almost quit this work. I’ll say, “I can’t do it anymore, it is too hard.” Then something will happen, something very satisfying will happen. I have asked for guidance, “Show me what I am doing.” If I listen and watch the cues it always happens that I find what I am after. There is something very spiritual about this work. There is something almost other worldly about it.

I think it is God’s will and I think there is a lot of randomness in life too. I think that if you are chosen to do something or if you put yourself in the path of being chosen to do something, somehow the circumstances all fall into place. Then you have an obligation to do it. I have been very well fed. I am well taken care of. There is no reason for me to do anything else. There is no reason for me not to do this. I must do it. For me to spend my time at anything else would be wrong, just not right.

Just playing and having a life of leisure is not my style. But it isn’t that it is just not my style, it’s also the fact that there is a lot of work to be done. I wasn’t given the opportunity to do what I do without a reason.

Sometimes I get back a lot from the work and other times I don’t. But it isn’t what I get back from it, it’s what happens, it is how well I do my job. If I do my job well and at the end of the day people’s lives have been saved and we have moved along, then I feel good. It keeps refueling the reason for why I’m here. It’s like I am on a mission.

I don’t understand why Susan died and I lived through my cancer. I have no reason to understand it, except that she was born premature and for some reason her immune system may not have functioned as well. I may have been given a longer period of time to do this work. I don’t know. Believe me, there were times I wish I could have fought her battle for her. I think I was diagnosed with this disease to unfortunately understand, on a very personal level, besides everything she went through, what it was.

Looking back there are few regrets. I wish that I had had a little more time to be, well . . . I would have liked to have had another child. At the time they advised me not to. With breast cancer they weren’t suggesting that people go on and have more children. Today it would be different. I missed out on a lot of things with my son when he was young. He’s turned out, thank God. There are times I wished I had had a little more time and hadn’t had to stay up all night worrying about things. I have been so intensely involved in my cause.

I have some wonderful friends, but I don’t think I’m particularly popular on a personal level. I think people like me, basically view me as strong, you know? But there are things, that because I am an agent of change, I’m not the person you would just call to go play with. My friends are wonderful and they tend to include me, but I know they don’t think of me as being a cozy person. I’m intense about everything I do. I’m sure they feel uncomfortable. I wish I were more low key. I’m just not. No matter how hard I try I’m not wired that way. So I try to cope and handle it, but it just doesn’t seem to work out for me.

On the other hand I’ve learned to not be afraid to take something on that seems impossible. My father was my role model for success and achievement. With enough commitment, courage and persistence, especially persistence, you can overcome almost everything. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. I’m not. I have largely been successful because I surround myself with extremely bright people who are much better at everything then I am. Don’t be afraid.

My Sister’s Keeper

It felt like I had been hit by lightening.

“Gabriel,” my sister Candace said, with a voice that was close to breaking. “I have breast cancer.

After a moment of stunned silence, not sure I had heard her right, I said something stupid like, “Are you sure?”

“They’re doing a lumpectomy and then they’re talking about radiation, chemotherapy and hormone treatments,” she continued, while I sat numb, listening on the phone to the litany of assaults upon her body that she was about to endure.

“Do you have to have all the other stuff after surgery?” I wondered out loud. “If it’s all in one area and they remove it, why do you have to still do everything else?”

“Just to make sure,” she replied. “The other therapies make it less likely that it will ever reappear and since I’m so young, with children, they don’t want to take any chances.” She paused and swallowed. “And neither do I.”

I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My little sister, the only biologically related sister I have (the other eight being foster sisters) and the one I’ve known since her birth, two years after mine, just told me she had a disease that she could die from. And, because I had worked at a hospice for many years, with people living the last months and days of their lives due to cancer and other diseases, my first reaction was that she was going to soon join the dead.

As if she was reading my mind she said, “The odds are really good that it will all work out fine, but I wanted to let you know.”

She was right, the odds for full recovery from early-detected breast cancer are very good and have continually improved over the last number of years, but knowing that didn’t help much at the time.

“Have they told you about all the side effects?” I asked, aware that, at least in the past, physicians and nurses sometimes minimized the amount of discomfort and reactions that can occur from chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapies.

“Yeah,” she said. “They told me about all the worse things that could happen. They said they had to tell me, even though none of them would probably occur.”

“Sure,” I thought to myself. “I’ve heard that before, then seen people get as sick and tired as an old dog and feel like the treatment was killing them worse than the cancer.” But, I couldn’t tell my sister that. At least I didn’t think I could at the time. I wanted to be hopeful and supportive so I said, “Good. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

She went on to describe when, how and what would happen and how she had discovered the lump. She said that in some ways it was a relief to at least know what it was and why she had been feeling so uncomfortable in that area.

I asked the usual questions. “Do you want me to come up and help with the kids? Is there anything I can DO?”

“No,” she said. “Mark (my brother-in-law) will watch the kids and work told me to take as much time off as I need. I’m a big girl now, remember.”

“I love you,” I said.

“I know, big bro,” she replied. “I love you too.”

I wish there were a switch we could turn on when we hear bad news, a switch that takes us immediately to hope meaning and compassion. But, more often than not, anxiety and apprehension are the first visitors that take me on a roller-coaster ride of grief. My first reaction to Candace’s news had been fear, but after her surgery was over and the treatments started, I began looking at our relationship in a different way and discovered how much I appreciate how close we’ve become as we’ve gotten older and had children of our own.

If there is any blessing or “hidden golden lining” in confronting and living through or dying with a life threatening illness, it must be the sense of presence and appreciation it can give us for the short lives we are living. It makes our mortality real and thus provides a container for the preciousness and value of every life.

Before Candace was diagnosed with cancer, she would have been the last person in the world to ever seek counseling or attend a support group. But, after her surgery she started seeing a private therapist and then attended a cancer support group. I was really taken aback when she first told me she was utilizing such support. As the months went along, she told me of the insights and changes that counseling and the group were creating within her and how she was realizing that she has far more choice in how she chooses to live her life than she had previously envisioned. I guess that’s what people mean when they say that having cancer was or is a blessing, because it helped them to “wake up” and live life instead of being a victim of life.

Luckily, after about two years of treatments, Candace was free and clear of any signs of disease and remains so to this day. I think she sees life differently now and has a deeper awareness, understanding and compassion for others. I have never taken her for granted, but ever since receiving that first phone call, when she told me she had cancer, I’ve appreciated and loved her more than ever and not only contacted her more frequently, but don’t hesitate in letting her now how deeply I care.

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