I’m in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, living the promise I made to myself on a hospital bed three years ago during breast cancer treatment — a promise to say “yes” as often as I can when life offers something fun or meaningful.
But while I’m parasailing over the Pacific for the first time, my new friend Suzanne will be here in California having an unfamiliar experience of her own. Unfortunately, her plan that day is to endure her first round of chemotherapy.
The two of us sat next to each other during a short lecture at CancerPartners, a local organization that helps people like us with all sorts of issues. That day, the talk was about a healing technique, reiki, in which trained practitioners use energy to help restore physical and spiritual wellness in others.
When we went around the room introducing ourselves, Suzanne, sitting next to me, mentioned she was recently diagnosed. In that split second, I flashed back to those terrifying first moments of my journey with cancer.
After the lecture, I asked her how she was holding up, and before I knew it, I was engrossed in a conversation about the surreal quality that life takes on when cancer sneaks into the room.
With the fluency of a medical specialist, Suzanne mentioned body parts I hadn’t even heard of that an unwelcome mass had recently attached itself to. The mass grew at a pace that rivaled Jack’s magical beanstalk. My lump also seemed to grow palpably during my long wait for a mammogram. Was it during that interval that the cancer spread to my lymph nodes and sternum? … Wait. That question doesn’t serve me. I refocused my attention on my new friend and the important conversation we were having.
We talked about the peculiar reaction friends and acquaintances have toward our disease, how some of our besties seemed to pull away, and how other people we barely knew came out of the woodwork to help.
“Some of my friends hurt my feelings by their standoffishness,” she shared. “But mostly, I just found the reactions fascinating, as if I’m suddenly privy to a little-known quality of human nature. It’s like watching an experiment in psychology unfold right before my eyes.”
As we talked, I realized that the next time I saw this new friend, she’d look completely different. “Are you going to freeze your head?” I asked. It’s a technique some people do to save their hair during chemo. I tried it and it didn’t work for me, but another woman I talked with had a great experience.
“You know, it’s weird,” Suzanne said. “My doctor listed all sort of horrible aspects about my health condition, about what I’ll be required to do, how long this treatment is going to take, and I was fine. But as soon as he said I’d lose my hair, I lost it.”
We laughed. Sort of.
I remembered telling my friend Terrie about my cancer diagnosis when I ran into her at the Dollar Store just before my treatment started. Visualizing how I’d look the next time she saw me was what teared me up.
While Suzanne and I laughed, my cellphone buzzed. It was time for my daughter’s softball game, and I didn’t want to be late. As we walked toward the door, my new friend turned and asked one last question.
“If I get a wig,” she mused, more to herself than to anyone else, “what color would it even be?”
I whispered a prayer, silently willing her to be strong.
“Any color you want, baby. Any color you want.”
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