There are moments in life—oh, life, you are so hilarious—when everything turns on its head. And then there are moments, say, five years later, when everything turns again. And yet nothing is the same as it was the before it changed the first time, and you wind up cross-eyed and kinda nauseous.
One of my dear friends, Amanda, has just been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. It’s bad, and it sucks, and there are basically no other words. I mean there are—some of them are Latiny medical words and some of them are very bad words and almost all of them are adjectives, but none of them mean anything except cancer. Cancer that has made itself quite at home in Amanda’s body, in a bunch of places, without so much as telling her it was squatting until she bought a house, moved in, thought she’d tweaked her knee, and the MRI showed a tumor. It wasn’t until two weeks and five appointments later that the focus shifted from suspected lymphoma to, “Wait, no… not lymphoma. Breast.”
Everything changed when that word entered the conversation. Suddenly the PET scan that looked “unsurprising” when they thought it was lymphoma was a whole different ball game, and the bases were loaded.
It’s funny, in that not-at-all-humorous way… every time I would hear about someone diagnosed with stage IV cancer, I would think, “How did they not feel something was different?” Now I know the answer. Amanda was diligent about her health; her father died at age 34 from cancer, and she is obsessive about annual physicals, blood work, colonoscopies, and, yes, a mammogram every year since she turned 40. She had one less than a year ago. Clear. But mammograms in women under 50 are much less effective because the tissues are still dense, and Amanda is 43. And though she did notice a change that may indicate inflammatory breast cancer about a year ago, and did go to two or three doctors to check it out, all the tests came back clean. Amanda is also cursed with a useless metabolism, and her weight hid the “very enlarged” lymph nodes under her arm that only showed up in scans. There was just no way to know.
She is feeling every emotion you can imagine. She’s cried so much that she doesn’t think she can cry anymore, and then she does.
Her family is very small and not local, so there are five of us who live within an hour who will be her “on the ground” care team. I asked her, sitting in the car after the watershed appointment where the breast surgeon told her what we were dealing with, who she felt comfortable with knowing all her intimate details and being there even on her worst days. She gave me the names. We’ve already launched a small operation to keep things organized and keep each other informed as we take turns accompanying Amanda to appointments and, going forward, treatments and post-treatment days. We are functioning exactly as we did in our jobs when we worked together: project managing and troubleshooting, thinking of everything we can in the early going so that things might be a tiny bit easier later. There’s a Google Drive and a calendar and a binder and a lot of coordinating amongst ourselves so that everything goes seamlessly to anyone who might observe from outside.
Now there’s a new name on the list, one Amanda didn’t mention at first, but said she was okay with when Liz asked, and while she’s not a full-on member of Local Support (bra logo pending), she’s already the exposed underwire that’s going to poke the shit out of me.
She’s my old boss.
Terri has Hodgkins Disease, and she’s currently in relapse number four. She also has a manipulative personality and a tendency to want to be in charge of, and wield power over, everyone. She’s not Amanda’s friend, but when Amanda thought she had lymphoma, she reached out to Terri for guidance. It made total sense, and Terri still has valuable insight that will help Amanda, and that is all that matters.
But Terri treated me horribly pretty much every day for four and a half years, threatened on paper and in person to fire me, humiliated me, ignored me, called me names, and made me miserable, and I’ve only been away from her for 13 gloriously liberating, rebuilding months. And now she’s part of this.
The whole care team used to work for Terri; Liz still does. She doesn’t have a problem with Terri, but knows my history and was sensitive enough to ask me if it was okay to give her my email address and if it was okay to invite her to a team meeting we’re having Tuesday night at Liz and her wife Molly’s house. I told her Amanda needs Terri’s insight, and that’s all that matters.
And then the chest pains started and I realized I’m going to need to get a new anti-anxiety med prescription, because apparently I can handle my sweet friend having stage IV breast cancer, but I can’t handle having to deal with Terri again. Terri, who emailed me seconds after I gave Liz permission to share my email address, seemingly to say not much of anything, and then, after a few really courteous exchanges, said, “I know it’s a shitty way to reconnect, but I’m glad we are. Still miss you here…”
And then I yelled at the screen and threw up.
(I only actually did one of those things.)
I met Amanda, as well as Alicia and Miriam and Liz, when I started my old job, not quite six years ago. The four of us were like an internal support group in a rough industry, constantly keeping each other laughing, helping each other with the work, or listening to each other’s gripes. I met Molly when Liz, during a snowstorm, offered to have me stay at their place, two miles from work instead of my 50, because we had to work the next day. Together, we have all been through a raft of ridiculousness. Of all of us, Amanda left first. I left a few months later; Alicia and Miriam left on the same day, seven months after that.
Miriam (who also hates Terri) reminded me that sometimes the Devil has an answer, so you talk to the Devil about that one thing and you ignore the rest. I’m going to try to keep that in mind. It occurred to me that this is what some families must endure… that sense of being thrown into something awful with someone who has caused a great deal of pain, because someone else needs them both at the same time.
I just got home from spending much of the day at Amanda’s house with her, her friend Noel from college, and another of our former coworkers. There’s a weird sense of conflict within me about giving non-team members any information on Amanda’s illness. I’m fiercely protective and I don’t want others to know more than she’s comfortable with sharing, but when they ask you point-blank and Amanda’s not yet home from Target, it’s an awkward situation.
I’ve known about Amanda’s cancer, in whatever form it was going to take, for two weeks, and I’ve already learned so much. Some of it is about myself. And it may be uglier and more insidious than triple-negative stage IV possibly inflammatory breast cancer. Tomorrow morning, Alicia takes Amanda to her first radiation appointment to try to get a handle on her somewhat debilitating pain, and in the afternoon, I take her to her first meeting with her medical oncologist, who will determine and order all her chemo treatments and coordinate with the breast surgeon and the radiation oncologist about others. And Tuesday, Terri and I sit down with the rest of Local Support, bra logo pending, and figure out how to hold Amanda up without fraying at the edges.