By Lisa Barr
Julie, just one year older than me, is the big sister I never had. We grew up in the same neighborhood. And if things got bad at home, I would call her. She’d stop her life, and we’d go for a walk and a talk. She was, then and now, a safe place for me. My secrets remained in her vault. There was nothing she did not know about me. To the rest of the world, I hid things … but to Julie, I could go to those dark places and she would somehow turn on the light. Those walks, those talks, especially as a teenager, saved my life.
And then came the day, years later, when her life was on the line. It was nearly five years ago, and she went in for a routine mammogram check-up. Everything was fine. Her husband, a physician, told her to get an ultrasound too — to be double-sure that all was well. It was The Move that saved her life. A mass not seen on the mammogram was discovered on the ultrasound. Within two days, Julie learned that she had Stage 2 Breast Cancer. And it was aggressive. This, for a woman, who had no “history.”
Everything changed. At the same time that Julie was going through all of this, they found a benign cyst on my spine that had to be removed. It was all happening simultaneously. I had three consecutive surgeries — two botched-up surgeries, and a third to fix the mistakes — all in a three-month period. I was in bad shape, but Julie was fighting for her life. I was laid out and could not be there for her surgeries until I was fully recovered. It was so hard for me — going through hell but knowing my friend’s hell was way worse.
And just like always … when I finally arrived at her front door, and she stood there, bald, baseball-capped, the life sucked out of everything but her gorgeous green eyes — we understood. Life is a journey; hard, wonderful, twists and turns, at times unbearable, and other times, glorious — but without true friends — without the “no matter what” — life is empty.
Friendship is not simply about the being there during the crisis, it’s about being there when everyone else leaves, and you are left picking up the pieces.
And that friend — the one who has your secrets safe inside her vault, and hers in yours — is still standing there next to you.
January marks five years that Julie will be cancer-free. We met at our usual spot for lunch to discuss and dissect our lives. But that day was different.
“Jules,” I began over our chopped salads, “I want to write about cancer, about you, and us.”
She laughed. “We’re really going to do this?”
“Oh yeah.” I took out my iPhone, and my little mini yellow legal pad (hands-down my fave app), and began tapping away. I leaned forward and began to ask questions:
Do you remember what you felt the moment you were told you had cancer?
The second I was diagnosed all I could think about was this can’t be happening, and I have to go now and pick up carpool. You have the wrong person, I wanted to say — and I really have to leave. … but of course they would not let me go just yet. And then it all began … Everything from that moment onward happened so fast. I could not have gotten through any of it without my wonderful husband (my rock and best friend), children, parents, and friends. After people found out about my situation, so much love poured through — it was like being alive at my own funeral. I was so lucky to have had so much support. Everyone was there for me, hovering around me, doing. It was as if my entire community showed up. They lifted me and kept me up so that I wouldn’t fall. Not only were they there for me, but they were there for my family — bringing dinners nightly, gifts, everything. When you’re sick, you want to tell people, No, don’t bother yourself … you have your own lives. My advice: Say Yes to everything offered, you really do end up needing it.
What was a hard part for you that perhaps people should know when dealing with someone who has cancer?
Well I couldn’t wear a wig, as you know. It really itched me. So instead, I wore a baseball cap. And wherever I went, it was like I was wearing the ‘I Have Cancer’ sign. And I totally understand people’s need to talk and connect. But strangers would come up to me, as though it were an invitation, and say things like: ‘Oh I know you’re going through a lot. My sister died of cancer last year …’ I know they were just trying to connect, but there I was fighting for my life and hearing about death — it was really hard on me.
Another tough one was when people complained about their daily lives, and all I wanted was my daily life back. All I wanted was what once was … carpool, to-do lists, normal. And when they complained about all those normal activities, inside myself, it was really hard. Remember that those fighting cancer would give anything just to have their ‘old’ life back.
What would you emphasize to someone who just learns she/he has cancer?
Be your own advocate! Even if you don’t have cancer — be your own advocate. If I didn’t demand an ultrasound — honestly, I would not be here today. I know insurance will cover the mammogram and not always in the case of an ultrasound — so that can be tough on someone financially. But if you do have dense breasts — it’s worth paying for it yourself, if you have to. All I can tell you is having that information truly saved my life.
Any advice while someone is in treatment?
Surround yourself with those who can make you laugh. When you are sitting in the room getting chemo — there are so many painful things to see. I was there once and a woman was rushed out in an ambulance. It was terrifying. The world of cancer is surreal. Many things are taken from you — but finding laughter is so important.
Look at you now, Jules. You have your life back. You have “carpool” — lunch, workout, travel, living as you did before … what’s changed inside you?
I appreciate every second of my life. I got all the toxic people out, and focus on those I love spending time with.
Don’t wait for a diagnosis to get rid of what hurts you in life. Remember, the only thing you take with you when you leave is the love you created.
Focus on love, on satisfying your soul. And while you’re at it, find the laughter and the lighter side of life in your every day living. Let go of those things that don’t matter, and appreciate those things — those people — who make your life full.
We held each other’s gaze. And it was all there in that moment — our history: teenage angst, young women in the dating world, new moms, divorce (me), cancer (her), highs and hurdles — her secrets/my secrets — so much to navigate in a lifetime of friendship. And I just knew, as she knew … whatever comes next, and after that — we will be there for each other.