Sometimes powerful, sometimes painful, there are lessons in cancer at every turn.
Her name was Laura. We’d been in touch for nearly 40 years. Long ago, I owned an entertainment agency that began in 1978, and she was one of the first performers I hired. Back then, there was a widespread phenomenon called “Singing Telegrams” that were hugely popular during the 80s. The idea was to send a singing, dancing, costumed character to help celebrate your event. We often performed in public places such as restaurants or nightclubs.
Laura had a few specialty acts that were both fabulous and professional. She did a great “Mae West” routine.
She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer six years before male breast cancer showed up in my body. We talked via email several times a year and it was about two years back when she first indicated that the clinical trials for her advanced cancer were running low on options.
She continued to work as a nurse in Oregon for as long as she could, supported in her race with survival by her husband, Herman. She had a deep connection with her church and her faith, and it made me happy to hear that she derived some comfort from that influence in her life.
Early this year, I received an email from her. It contained the usual medical news I was always eager to hear and some uplifting stories about her life in Oregon. She rarely complained of the intense side effects from her various experimental drug therapies, but I could tell that it was often quite unpleasant for her.
But in this particular correspondence she spoke of her husband and the difficulties she expected that he would experience after her passing; which had become a certainty at this point. There were no further “options” for her and she was expected to live for just another few months.
It didn’t surprise me to hear that her concerns were no longer for her own life, but for the life of her loved ones. My own wife died of ovarian cancer at the age of 47. I found out some months later from friends that she had also expressed similar concerns about me.
Laura asked if I would make a promise to her to be available for Herman, both as a friend and as a man who had experienced the loss of a spouse through cancer. Of course I agreed. Another few months went by. I sent an email that was not returned and knew that there were important moments in Laura’s life that she needed to focus on. I understood that our relationship was drawing to a close.
A few weeks back, I received a phone call from Herman, telling me that his wife was gone. We shared some memories of Laura and laughed a little. I spoke the words that I had learned were important from my own experience. I simply told him that I loved him. And I loved Laura. There’s no easy or time-tested way of saying goodbye. But the awkwardness that we sometimes feel disappears with honesty.
As a senior cancer survivor and a man whose future, like everyone’s, is unpredictable at best, I have learned to expect that these goodbyes will occur more and more frequently. As I ponder my own inevitable passing, I find it immensely heartening to learn from those who have gone before me.
I look at Laura’s death as a lesson, as a method, as an example of how I can choose to die also. She had the wisdom and perhaps the luxury in a sense, to create the event of her passing and orchestrate, at least to some degree, how things might go. I admired her for that. I loved her for that too.
Out of the 2,500 men who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the U.S., 450 of us will die. There’s no way around that number; at least for today. I hope that changes soon. But until then, there will be others to whom I will bid a fond farewell. And around the world, 7.6 million people who are loved by someone die of cancer each year. The way I see it, that means we have 7.6 million more reasons to find our cure.