Cancer changed my life, but it didn’t happen to me. In fact, one of the most profound moments of my life didn’t really have anything to do with me whatsoever. Cancer happened to my best friend’s family. Her mother was diagnosed when we were just young teenagers.
I met my best friend on a cold Montreal evening when I was 11 years old. I was new at school and, as instructed, had come down to the roadside curb where my father usually picked me up. There had been a snowstorm and the school was located on top of a mountain side. I did not know this at the time but the car was unable to make the climb up the slippery roads. I waited for what seemed like an eternity in the cold and blowing snow. As the crowd of parents and students thinned, Sabrina (not her real name), the girl who would become my best friend, materialized out of nowhere. “Come with me!” she shouted as she took my hand and led me between the flakes towards a van that had been parked nearby for some time.
I entered the van, grateful for the warmth, and said hello to the mom sitting behind the wheel. Her name was Lisa (also not her real name). She asked me questions, most likely about whether or not someone was coming to pick me up, as her daughter got on her knees, took my boots off, and rubbed the feeling back in my feet. They waited with me to keep me warm until my father could make it up the hill. I was, and am forever more, grateful for their generosity to a near total stranger.
I don’t remember much about Sabrina’s mom. I was young and too involved in my own teenage experience to pay attention to those kind of details. What I do remember was a beautiful woman, small in stature, but enormous in presence. She was a spiritual, somewhat intimidating, formidable housewife married to one of Canada’s top neurosurgeons. Her soft spoken demeanour belied a strong, intangible quality that I could not even now name.
Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer when Sabrina and I were just 14 years old. I didn’t understand the implications for the family. I could see the waves ripple through, how it affected Sabrina and her beliefs and behaviours, but to fully comprehend what was happening to that family was beyond my capabilities at the time. I can only imagine what “it wasn’t easy” truly meant.
The cancer eventually spread and took Lisa’s life but I’ll never forget the manner in which she left. Her digestive track had become riddled with tumors that disabled her from taking in nutrients so she had become a small shadow of a person but the strength of her character still shone through. She passed away the day after Mother’s Day; The day after she spent with her entire family. Her husband, three children and child-in-law, and first grandchild all came to the hospital where she was being monitored. After her mother passed, Sabrina told me that on Mother’s Day she had been lively and in good spirits but for the first time she had spoken about possibly dying:
“If I don’t make it…”
You see, the doctors’ had given her 5 months to live.
She lived for another 5 years.
“No one,” she had said, “tells me how long I have to live.”
From birth to her death, Lisa was a woman who lived life on her own terms, no matter what was happening around her and sometimes even to her. Were there days when she kicked and screamed and wailed from the injustice of it all? I’m sure there were. But there was also courage and grace and strength that to this day takes my breath away.
As Sabrina quoted from Jim Morrison in her graduating year book, “No one gets out of here alive.”
Lisa’s fate is all of our fates. Her life, and death, taught me how to live my own. We may not have control over the when and how of our finale but no bodily decline or outside obstacle can dictate how our inner selves may thrive. It may be easy for me to say, as I’ve never had to go through cancer. But one day I may. And one day I will definitely be faced with my own demise. I can only hope to develop as much of my inner strength as possible before that day comes. I have long ago adopted Lisa’s words as my own:
No one tells me what I can or cannot do. No one.
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The preceding article was written for the blog Cancer Stories Cure run by Coach Deanna Stull in March of 2015. In September of 2017 I was diagnosed with breast cancer.