What do you say to a friend when you know these will be the last words you say to her? Does Hallmark even make a card for that?
As a PhD student in tumor biology, Jamie Holloway survived long hours researching breast cancer in the labs of Georgetown University. Ten years later, after being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, she survived that too. Now with no evidence of disease, she shares a patient's perspective with scientists and clinicians as a breast cancer research advocate. A wife, mother, runner, and lipstick addict, she shares her story from the perspective of both a patient and a scientist.
I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw her. She had only been diagnosed with liver metastases a month earlier. She looked bad when I visited her in the hospital shortly after that diagnosis, but she was going to start chemo the next day. When she sent out a mass email saying she wanted a pedicure, I thought that meant the chemo was helping, they were getting her liver under control. It was so last minute, yet everyone on that email invite made it to the nail salon the next day. We all chatted — some about breast cancer because, after all, we’d all been through some combination of chemotherapy, radiation, multiple surgeries and infections. But mostly, we talked about kids and summer plans and family trips. We posed as one of the sweet ladies at the salon snapped a picture before we left. She wanted to try the taco place that’s a local favorite, and even though it was mid-afternoon and most of us weren’t hungry, we were thrilled she was, so we headed over. I got some chips and guac, because that’s the kind of friend I am. If you ever need someone to eat guacamole with you, I’m your gal. We hugged in the parking lot and everyone headed back to their respective kiddos coming home from school.
I didn’t dream that would be the last time I saw her.
A few days ago, her husband texted those of us who had been checking in with him the past month. I’m so glad the three of us happened to be together when that text popped up. She’s no longer in treatment. She’s at home in hospice care. She doesn’t want visitors, but if we send a card, he’ll read it to her. She can’t even read it herself.
Being a cancer survivor is a funny thing. It’s natural to seek out others who’ve had the same experience. The validation that comes from nothing more than an understanding nod can’t be underestimated. But it’s so risky. For a while, I tried to keep my “breast cancer friends” separate, distant. She was the first one I offered to meet for coffee outside of group. It’s a tricky balance, because while I knew we would both gain so much by spending time together, I knew we were setting ourselves up for just this kind of thing. One of us might have to watch the other die from the disease we shared. I didn’t dream it would be this soon, and honestly, I didn’t dream it would be her. I had the more aggressive disease, it should have been me. Just one more of the cruelties that is cancer.
I didn’t know that day at the nail salon would be the last time I saw her. But now I do know and these will be the last words I say to her. My mind is swimming with all the things I should say, yet it is empty at the same time. What kind of card is even appropriate? I’m betting Hallmark doesn’t make a card for that. And somehow my favorite “That Sucks” card with a drawing of a vacuum cleaner seems a tad too cheeky. I’m taking time to find some words, and I’ll probably spend far too long searching for what will end up being a completely inadequate, non-descript blank card on which I can tell my friend goodbye. Because now I know. This will be the last time.