Although you know that life is going to inevitably bring pain and suffering, it still sucks. I am going through one of those particularly “sucky” times right now. It is not my health, but that of my beloved cousin that has pulled the rug from underneath me. I have always found writing therapeutic, and since she is going to lose her life to the very same disease I have, I think a blog post is rather appropriate.
J. is 11 years older than me. She grew up in Cincinnati and I mostly in Colorado. When I would spend summers in Cincinnati, I think I became the little sister she never really wanted. I, on the other hand, loved having a big sister as I had only a younger brother growing up. We had plenty of rough times during those summers, as we, like all siblings, competed for her parent’s attention. But, I distinctly remember wanting to be around her. I watched in awe as she water skied on the Ohio river. I cheered for her at her softball games. And I relished the attention she would give me when she took me to her work place, or with her friends to a fireworks show. Her sense of humor and capacity for “fun” made her one of those people everyone loved to be around.
As I became an adult, trips back to Cincinnati became few and far between. I would go for a short visit every few years as I knew my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmother wanted to see my son. I wanted my son to know them as well. Even as an adult I have many fond memories of Cincinnati and trips to spend time with my family. And of course, I loved seeing J. each and every time I was there.
J.’s mother, my aunt, was truly one of my favorite people. Aunt B. was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid 80’s. She died in 2009. For well over 20 years she fought the dreaded monster and was always an inspiration to me as I fought through my first diagnosis in 2001. It seems cancer sort of “took over” my mother’s side of the family in the late 90’s and it really hasn’t stopped since. J. lived through an initial diagnosis of melanoma in 2005. Aunt B. was re-diagnosed with breast cancer again in the mid-90’s, just as my aunt S. passed away from the disease in 1996. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer just 7 short months after me in 2002. It has really been quite relentless.
I think J. and I became closer after her mother, my aunt B. died in 2009. The real bonding came the next year when J. was diagnosed with breast cancer. I helped her navigate her way through diagnosis and treatment. I quickly became re-acquainted with the cancer vocabulary and I remember thinking how unfair this all was to her, especially so soon after losing her mother. But, like most she fought back and refused to succumb to this disease that had hurt us all for so long.
In 2011, we took J. on a Caribbean cruise to celebrate life. She had lived through breast cancer, she was turning 50 that year, and we needed to acknowledge it all in a big way. The trip was amazing. To this day, it is still one of my favorite vacations. There was a group of 12 and we all had a blast. J. bonded with some of my best friends and they quickly came to love her as I did.
Then came the turning point for me. In 2012 I was re-diagnosed with breast cancer metastatic to the bones. I was told there was no cure and all further treatment would be to control the disease and extend my life if possible. The average life span with a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is 3-5 years. Yet, here I am, almost four years later, not only surviving, but thriving. Later that same year, J. was re-diagnosed metastatic as well. The sooner you relapse after initial diagnosis, the worse the prognosis tends to be. I had gone 10 years before relapse, J. not quite three years later.
So, by the end of 2012, we found ourselves in the same boat, fighting for our lives and futures. We both had breast cancer in our bones. We spent a lot of time talking doctors, treatments, side effects, prognosis, and fear. We also went on several more trips together. Another Caribbean cruise in 2013, an Alaskan cruise in 2014, and 10 days on the beaches of Florida, just this past summer in 2015. We had some incredible experiences together. Zip lining, swimming with dolphins, standing on a glacier, collecting buckets full of seashells, just to name a few.
It did not take long for J’s cancer to spread into her liver. But, she never gave up. She had a positive attitude, an incredible sense of humor, and strong will to live. She took each new treatment and made the best of it. Despite confounding conditions that included congestive heart failure, she continued to live and make the very most of every day she had.
At the beginning of this year, just over 2 weeks ago, J. was told that the cancer was spreading in her liver and they wanted to try a new chemo. On Monday, January 11th she received the first dose and then basically crashed. She was admitted to the hospital but made it very clear that she wanted to go home. By Wednesday, hospice was involved. Today, I’m told she probably has hours, days at best. My mother is by her side, along with her dad, and a friend that has been with her through everything. She is comfortable.
On the other hand, I am heartbroken! Angry, sad, frustrated, and tired all rolled up in a ball in the center of my chest as I await the inevitable phone call. Even when you know and expect something, it somehow doesn’t seem to make it much easier. Logically, I can tell myself not to feel guilty, but it doesn’t matter. I do feel guilty. Why her and not me? Why do I get to keep on living but her short life has come to an end? I feel so helpless. There are few times in my life that I would describe myself as being in an utter state of despair, but this is definitely the state I am in at the moment. There are no answers to my questions. I get it. But, it doesn’t stop me asking, because, damn it! it just isn’t fair.
My only comfort now, is knowing that Aunt B. is waiting for J. Knowing that they will be reunited on the other side. I also take comfort in knowing that the pain and suffering that J. has endured over the past 5 years is going to end. She never gave up. I will miss her and hold her in my heart forever.