This time of year, I find myself recalling the shock of diagnosis. I remember my laughter on October 1, 2013, when the bitter irony of being told I had breast cancer on the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month washed over me in all of its Pepto-Bismol Pink, marketing-schemed glory. Memories are at every turn, and snippets of those I love absorbing the news can’t be separated from their stock images in my mind. With some people, it stings to remember their reactions because their sadness was swift and heartfelt. For the most part, I kept calm and reassuring, and I wanted to put it all out in the open as quickly as possible. There was one person, however, that I dreaded telling the news.
The first time I met Joanna, Baby #1 and I were attending a Kindergarten event at the elementary school . I nervously stood next to a table covered in coloring sheets and crayons, as I didn’t know any of the parents and teachers yet. Joanna marched right over to me, introduced herself, and took me by the hand. Then she introduced me to other parents and, for the rest of the evening, checked in with me to be assured I was socializing while the kids were playing. For me, she became the ambassador of the school and the community we had just moved to. I have wondered over the years if she had been the one to set the tone for us parents there, because I have seen amazing things begin due to her influence.
Everyone needs a Joanna in their life. Her interest in people, and the genuine way she focused her attention on them inspired connection and friendship. Her smile was warm, her laughter contagious, and her energy confounding. She was also inspirational, because for as long as I knew her, she was fighting her own cancer battle.
We found ourselves volunteering at school to assist the same classroom. Joanna invited all of us parent volunteers to her home, and she fed us while we sat around her kitchen table to plan events for the students. I lingered as long as I could, like everyone else did, just to be surrounded by the force of her personality a little longer. Finally, I was the last person there, and I awkwardly blurted out about my young adult medical history. It was a strange way to begin a conversation when my intention was to tell her I wanted to be supportive of her, but she wasn’t surprised. It was routine for others to open up to her, and she was genuinely interested in people’s feelings, experiences, and thoughts.
As I spoke, something in Joanna’s posture changed, as if a weight on her shoulders removed itself. We spent the next hour talking about chronic illness, choosing optimism, and how laughter heals. She spoke of the fear of the unknown, and how it saddles itself to a cancer patient during and after treatment. She also said it was a motivator to seize the day, and to never hold back.
“I’m a fighter,” she said, “and I’m too busy living to slow down. That doesn’t mean that cancer and its risks aren’t a part of me. I just choose to make it a small part.”
That’s how she lived, with a heart full of love and an impetus for action. Her motivations were to control what she could, and embrace her surroundings. I left her house that day more confident and self-assured than I was when I had entered it. Her gift to the world was sharing her perspective with us.
After I informed a mutual friend that I would be undergoing surgery and treatment, that friend asked me if I had yet told Joanna. Silence passed between us for a few seconds. I knew I had to tell Joanna myself, but I was dreading it. She had been fighting for so long, and had recently decided to begin hospice care.
But it wasn’t hospice in the traditional sense. Joanna’s life was her own, and when she decided to stop treatment, she chose how to best live out her days. She even shared her story through a radio interview.
I went over to her house to talk with her. She and I commiserated, and joked that we could each take a side on her sectional couch and share caregivers. My path was still in front of me and shrouded in uncertainty, while she was approaching the end of her journey. Her last words to me were “I can’t offer you much, except my heart, but it’s a big one. You can rely on me.” There is no doubt in my mind that her words were sincere and are still true. Cancer did not stop her from being who she wanted to be.
I bristle when someone tells a cancer patient that they can “beat” it. Beat what? If you survive treatment and surgeries, you are still burdened with it. The baggage doesn’t turn a person into a living saint or sanction some kind of moral authority. Rather, like any other life-changing experience, it gives the opportunities for power and definition.
I’m going to live with power over my days. I’m going to laugh at my own ridiculousness. I’m going to connect with and reach out to everyone I have the pleasure of coming into contact with. I’m going to speak with honesty and purpose. I’m going to honor Joanna by following her example. She showed me how to laugh, empathize, create, dream, and–simply put–live.
Cancer isn’t going to define me, even as I respect its presence in my life. It might make my clothes fit funny and prevent me from indulging my sweet tooth, but it cannot control my thoughts, or my intentions, or my will.
Joanna died the week of my bilateral mastectomy. I was unable to attend her funeral.
Doped up on medication and reeling from reality, I attended a night out in her honor a few weeks later. Dozens of women gathered to have drinks, share appetizers, and paint a beach scene that she would have loved. While my painting isn’t special, the friendship I shared with her was. She motivates me to take it all in, stay focused and positive, and get on with the business of living. I can push through, and I can define myself. Joanna taught me to how to do that.