Bold, courageous warriors. They are everywhere. They speak the silent terror from every walk of life. Their appearance is the 'Medal of Battle'; these brave women undergoing therapy for one of the most heinous diseases of our lifetime: CANCER. More and more it seems, the visibility of women diagnosed with breast cancer is increasing. Friends, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, nieces, the woman with the hat in the coffee shop who befriended us, the teller at the bank. The numbers are staggering. We know. Our sister is one of them.
Driving down Elm Street on the way to sister J's house the other day, I saw a woman and a companion walking a beautiful chocolate Labrador Retriever. I was coming towards a stop sign at an intersection, and carefully observed the couple as they walked and talked for a few minutes. She was tall, and wore a stylish high-collared coat. She had recently lost her hair due to chemotherapy. I was stunned by her stature, and the dignified (almost regal) manner in which she carried herself. She was beautiful, and I just happened to observe a moment of laughter that they shared. But I knew. She might have been any one of the many women I have seen or met in the doctor's waiting rooms I have been to with my sister over the past year and a half. With admiration, I acknowledge the unspoken code between them, and have listened to the gentle compliments spoken to each other on how good they look or the sharing of experiences and fear–women who probably would have never crossed paths if not for this catastrophic commonality.
J had been diagnosed well over a year before we got to Vermont. A major impetus in our decision to move east was to be closer to her. She had told us by phone that she had found a lump, but had no idea that it was a fast growing cancer. We were not able to be here for support after the confirmation of the biopsies. With horror, I learned of her trip to Boston and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where she first went for treatment. After receiving initial infusions of chemotherapy, she had gone for a consultation at the Institute and was told additional tests and blood draws were needed. When J questioned this, the technician told her that if she was to have the surgery, additional tests were needed. At that point, there had been no discussion of mastectomy, nor surgery of any kind. Understandably, she became very upset and afraid and demanded to see the oncologist. Crying, she went into a restroom to try to compose herself. She splashed water on her face and ran her fingers through her hair. To her horror, handfuls of hair came out. Very emotional, she confronted her oncologist, who coldly told her that 'mastectomy' had indeed been discussed and that she must not have been listening. They ended up calling security to escort her out and was advised that she might want to seek treatment elsewhere. A major cancer treatment center that has never dealt with a hysterical woman who had just been given devastating news? I think not.
Tolerating chemotherapy and radiation is one thing; the total loss of hair was another. It was the first visible sign of disaster. J became reclusive to all but the closest of family. Actually, my aunt and sister-in-law were the only ones to see her. They provided her with stylish hats and took her to the city to buy a wig. Her beautiful hair was, privately, an integral part of her identity and any woman's self-esteem. In the lifetime of our closeness, I couldn't begin to fathom the repercussions. But I understood that it was only part of the larger picture. From the cross-country distance, I tried to lighten her spirits by telling her that I knew she had to be the most beautiful bald headed lady there's ever been, and how much I wanted to tell her in person. I know it didn't work very well. When we were finally able to get here, her hair had grown out to about an inch long and, hopefully, we were instrumental in convincing her that her nice hats, scarves, or wig could safely be relegated to 'pure accessories'. I see in her beautiful face something not there before. Through tears, through pain, through time and fear, I see the signs of wisdom one can only learn on their own.
The road is difficult and frightening. One doesn't have to travel it alone.
We can love and support and go as far as we can for as long as we're able to-
* * * * * * *
So if you're walking down the street sometime
and you should spot some hollow ancient eyes,
don't you pass them by and stare
as if you didn't care.
Say, "Hello in there. Hello."