I have a new friend, her name is Erin. We’ve e-mailed each other since June just after the surgery. She’s an avid member and leader for the Young Survival Coalition www.youngsurvival.org , an organisation of young and spirited women under 40 who have battled breast cancer.
We’ve swapped so many emails that I feel like I know her already. So when we meet each other for the first time at a café in a ritzy part of Washington D.C. The meeting almost seems anti-climactic.
Out of life’s lemons comes friendship. We can talk about the husband, the boyfriend, our work, and we can also ask questions like “So how quickly did your hair grow after chemo?” as casually as one might talk about the weather.
The sisterhood of breast cancer is on one hand awful (who wants to have cancer after all?), and also incredible. It is a reality that on many days life reverts to a norm, and there are other days when I am keen on connecting with other ladies like me.
The connection is crucial because on most days there aren’t too many folks to talk to about the realities of living with cancer - the fears of reoccurrence, the challenges of searching for a replacement breast surgeon and oncologist in a new city. On the most part it remains a lonely journey.
Cancer sometimes creeps into conversations and at times I remain oddly quiet about my own ordeal. A colleague mentions that a professor at the university died after her breast cancer returned “and kicked her in the ass.” The woman’s death was a sombre reminder that the disease is very real. I don’t know why I don’t chime in and say, “Oh I had breast cancer too.” Instead I shake my head and say “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Occasionally on a day when the sky is grey, when the air is chilly, when the days are so packed with the joys and frustrations of my new life as a grad student, there resurfaces a certain sadness and disbelief of what I’ve been diagnosed with. I share the emotions with the aunt who has ridden the rollercoaster with me. “You are fine now, you look amazing, just put it behind you, the past is the past,” the aunt says. “Think positive and you will be healthy.”
I try to explain to them that I want to stay connected, not in a dark abyss of hopelessness but in the comfort of connecting with others just like me and in the hopes of making a difference. And while young ladies with breast cancer remain a minority, it is refreshing to find an openness about this disease – an openness that I didn’t necessarily feel in Hong Kong. Over here breast cancer awareness is everywhere – the pink ribbon almost as common sight as the Starbucks on every corner. It gives me permission to talk about my own experience openly and honestly when I feel like it.
So on this sunny afternoon I feel like life is full of rainbows when I talk with my friend. The conversation naturally shifts to cancer. It’s been three years and she went through chemo and radiation. She credits support groups and other cancer conquerors for keeping her spirits high. Two of them were her maids of honour.
There’s a bond that is instant and indescribable. “It’s amazing that all of these wonderful things can come out of such crappiness,” she says. “Definitely,” I say feeling like a million dollars.