We often flow through life self-consumed, busy with our own thoughts and focused on the details of the things that seem important; money, cars, jobs, obtaining monetary success, etc. All of those things seem important until you or someone you love is faced with a life threatening health scare. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) and this blog is a pseudo open letter to my oldest and best girlfriend.
A little over a year ago, my best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her diagnoses came as a shock to everyone. She doesn’t have a family history of breast cancer and she is under 40 (too young for routine mammograms). As a friend, I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what to do. I had no idea how to comfort her. I can tell you that my girlfriend is strong willed and independent but she is also the most giving person I know. I am grateful to have her in my life. She brings out the best in me. I know that I am a better person due to our happenstance friendship that began somewhere during trigonometry or pre-calculus in high school.
Before I get to the details, let me tell you how she told a small group of friends one night last autumn. I should have known it was something bad by the way she buttered us up before breaking the news. She had an impromptu happy hour at her house on, I believe, a Tuesday. I was the last to arrive. I can’t remember what I was doing that was so important that day. I told her I was going to be late but she still called me twice while I was in route. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she was being so persistent. I thought maybe she had cooked something that was best served hot and I needed to get there fast. (She knows I like to eat.) When I finally arrived, I was greeted by the other girls and a spread that must have taken her all day to prepare. Odd…. But not thinking about anything but the stresses of the day and enjoying a good time with my girlfriends, I jumped right into the libations and food. Immediately, I noticed that she had cut her hair. It was nothing drastic but definitely a new look. It was when she pulled out a bottle of Remy Martin XO that my ‘Spidey’ sense started tingling. I remember thinking, “It’s only, Tuesday!... Are we really pulling out the XO on Tuesday?” Actually, I probably said that out loud. What’s the occasion? Did she get a raise? Did she finally hit the 4-digit number or a scratch off? I just kept drinking and eating. I can only afford VS so when someone offers you XO, you shut up and take it. We toasted to something and then she stood to make an announcement. She paused for a second; just long enough for me to know the next thing she was about to say wasn’t good news. Then she said, matter of factually “I have breast cancer… both breast.” All of the air left the room. At the time, we didn’t know if it was terminal or how badly it had spread. We all asked questions at the same time. What did this all mean? What was the prognosis? How could it have spread? You just found out! She didn’t have details or answers. She was still going through testing. Honestly, that’s all I remember. I was thinking the worst. I remember her rubbing my shoulders to console me. Always thinking of others, she was more concerned about how we took the news than with herself at that moment. She was able to tell us, she'd need at least two surgeries, one of which was to remove most of the tissue from both breasts. She was going to have to go through chemo and possibly radiation. I remember thinking, “I thought chemo was radiation”. I knew on the way home that night her life, my life, our lives would never be the same.
Here is how her cancer changed my life and my focus. I realized I knew nothing at all about breast cancer. Sure we all give to Susan B. Koman, Avon, and other charities but I'd never personally been affected. I really thought only older women were at risk. I mean mammogram screenings start at the age of 40 years old. I thought there was more cause for concern for those with a family history. It really wasn’t on my radar. I really didn’t know all of the indicators. I’ve since learned that women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40 often have a very aggressive form of the disease. It spreads quickly and it’s devastating. Knowing the signs and taking action could actually save lives. Before her diagnoses, I could have counted the amount of times I had actually given myself a breast exam. Begrudgingly, I really only did it after my yearly or bi-yearly pap smear, if I even did it at all.
We are always told to check for lumps but there are other signs we should look for, as well. Any changes in your breast should be checked. I also didn’t know, statistically, African-American women are more likely than all other races to die from breast cancer. Tumors often are found at a later, more advanced stage where there are fewer treatment options. Early detection is key to improving survival rates. In addition to new lumps or masses, here are some common indicators you should look for regularly:
We don’t know what causes breast cancer. Researchers and doctors have been working on a cure for many, many years. I hope they find one soon. I will say that as an advocate for women’s wellness, I stress proper bra fittings. While we don’t know what causes the disease, having underwires and ill-fitting seams and fabrics pressing on your breast tissue all day can’t be good for the overall health of your breast. Bras were invented to fulfill a need. The lingerie industry as a whole sells sex, not function. We need to get back to our roots. Saving the boobies starts with each of us knowing our bodies, paying attention to ourselves, getting screened and taking action as soon as possible.
My friend’s fight with cancer has taught me a lesson in humility, patience, and love. I didn’t know anything about treatment options. I found myself researching procedures, side effects, and recovery times. It’s been a rough year for her. She didn’t take a leave of absence from her job. She only took off to recover from surgery. There were many side effects from the litany of drugs, procedures, surgeries, etc. There were times when I knew she was in extreme physical pain and mentally exhausted. However, throughout it all, she never once complained. Cancer is a scary thing but she took everything in stride. She’s fought cancer with the same vigor and determination that makes her uniquely special. She is still on her journey. She’s endured several surgeries, chemo, and radiation. Along the way, she’s cheered us cheering her. That’s just how she is. Her spirit was never broken. Her words and outlook were always positive. She told me on my birthday this year that she was cancer free. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.
I am humbled by her strength and selflessness. I’m glad to call her my Sista Friend.
Peace and Many Blessings Love,
These photos are snapshots of some of the many, many, many, good times we've had over the years. I'm a fan of selfies and she indulges me.