Here we are at the beginning of another year. Often, whether we want to or not, we reflect on the year that just passed. We can either be happy about it or sad about it — whatever. But, as we go into 2016, we can decide to tip the attitude scale away from negativity and toward positivity.
How we look at a bad experience (or a loss) changes when we focus on the good that might come from it.
I’ve been thinking about certain women who had something in common with me. I started with a woman I knew as Mrs. Carter. She was the mother of my oldest friend, and my mother’s BFF. Mrs. Carter was also the first person I’d known with Stage 4 cancer. You see, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 when Mrs. Carter was in her seventh, and final year, of her battle with ovarian cancer. We went through chemotherapy at the same time. Because of this experience, we related to each other in a way that only cancer patients can understand. Mrs. Carter was my touchstone for how to live graciously with a chronic disease.
Fast forward to 2015… I knew three more women who were Stage 4. Two had metastatic breast cancer; and one, a close friend, had squamous cell oral cancer. All of them died this year. Before you think, ‘Damn, this post is by Debbie Downer,’ just bear with me. I have to put my chatty, witty posts about great food and travels and my occasional witty rants on pause for a bit. Sometimes bad stuff will remind us of things for which we should be grateful.
My gratitude is not “Thank God it’s not me at Stage 4.” It’s gratitude for being witness to the grace these women had as they faced our common adversary, Cancer, to the end.
Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been referred by friends to other women going through the same illness. That’s how I met Rhonda and Lisa: we all had tennis and breast cancer in common. Rhonda and Lisa never met, but each came into my life on the same day for the same purpose — through mutual friends, who wanted to introduce one breast cancer survivor to another.
Lisa was already in Stage 4 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We met for lunch through a tennis friend. Lisa was in good spirits when we met, but admitted her own doubts about whether she’d reach her 50th birthday. She told me about the extravaganza 50th birthday party she’d hosted that year when she turned 49. Lisa hung on most of the next year. She almost made it to 50, but died a few months shy of her birthday.
Rhonda and I met for dinner through another mutual friend on the same day I met Lisa. Rhonda was a Stage 2 survivor, who’d had the same diagnosis as I. But, Rhonda chose to treat the cancer only with surgery and forego the rest of the treatment protocol of chemo, radiation, and five years of a hormone drug. After she healed from her mastectomy, Rhonda quit her job with a Florida newspaper and became a freelance writer. She pursued her dream to live abroad for at least a year, starting in Costa Rica.
Rhonda’s sabbatical was cut short last January when pain sent her to the hospital. The doctor diagnosed her with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I thought about Rhonda, my thoughts would turn inward and I wondered if I’d be going down this same path one day. What scared Rhonda was scaring me, too, only I wasn’t living with it.
Rhonda wrote a couple of poignant pieces about her diagnosis and living with metastatic cancer here and here. Her theme was the strength of surrender. Rhonda’s own words were her guidepost for living.
Rhonda and I stayed in touch and followed each other’s blogs. From time to time, she would reach out to me for health advice.
In 2015, Rhonda became a certified life coach, and she enjoyed spending lots of time with family and her boyfriend. She was also present for every life milestone achieved by her loved ones. Rhonda continued freelancing for on-line publications, sometimes inciting controversy. She had a classy way of shutting down ugly comments from fools. And, among other things I learned about Rhonda, she was fearless when it came to her convictions.
My sister and I ran into Rhonda at the BlogHer15 conference in New York. I remember Rhonda’s response to a loud, boisterous group of women in the middle of the lobby. Even as she flinched at their behavior, she said, “Hashtag (#)nohometraining.” That’s a quick wit.
Rhonda and I were last in touch right after Thanksgiving. She told me about a spiritual conference for women she was organizing in Hartford, Connecticut for January 2016. She also shared news about her medical treatment. She said, “The Tamoxifen stopped working unfortunately and cancer in my liver got worse. Not exactly the best news but the doctor has another hormone drug she wants to try. I’m speaking its success into existence!”
I reflected on Rhonda’s message and noted that she literally continued to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I told her I hoped she’d find a successful alternative treatment. I made a mental note to offer help with her spiritual conference.
Rhonda died right before Christmas, less than a month later.
I only knew Rhonda a short time, but I’m grateful for what she reminded me — a cancer survivor — about life. Stay in the moment and cherish each one. Show grace when things appear to not be in your favor. Truly keep living.
This post is dedicated to Rhonda Swan — journalist, author, blogger, life coach, and awesome spirit.