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The Metastatic Village


A patient reflects on the comfort and grief within the world of metastatic breast cancer.

My small group of friends gathered around me when I was first diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer nearly seven years ago. They brought comfort and gave me a place to be afraid or breakdown or briefly rage. About half have stuck around.

Even as a couple established friendships fell apart with my cancer diagnosis as a backdrop, local acquaintances came forward to offer what they could – a meal, a ride, a blanket, an ear. I’d guess that we’ve all experienced loneliness. Yet, for me, there hasn’t ever been a loneliness quite like that I faced looking at my unknown future.

No one could ever fill up what was missing because what was missing – reasonable certainty that I’d live to a pleasant old age with my husband by my side and my kids circling around me with their own families – wasn’t going to be regained. By the time I was found by other people living with metastatic breast cancer, I had discovered ways of coping with the destruction such a cancer diagnosis can leave behind. I wrote for myself and for this publication, I found Qi Gong, I confided in the friends willing to listen and I lived in a strange no-man’s land between denial and reality.

Then, the village found me.

I remember my first “cancer friend.” She read something I wrote here and tracked me down. She told me about Living Beyond Breast Cancer and made me realize that even as I’d spent a year searching medical websites, a whole world of patients was waiting behind a door I hadn’t noticed.

I opened that door.

On the other side, they wrapped me up in love and concern, fed me a diet of cancer education and advocacy, and, I suppose, hoped that someday I’d pass all of it along to the similarly lost or lonely people I’d meet. I’ve done my best, but I’ve stumbled along the way. Deaths due to the same cancer I live with, those of close friends and those I wish I’d known better, mostly do me in.

It isn’t easy when you know it’s coming – the clues scattered across social media, then phone calls and texts – nor when it springs up like a gruesome, terrible jack-in-the-box. The deaths bringing home the fact that we continue to die, over 40,000 in the U.S. alone year after year, knowing that we are seen but mostly ignored anyway.

Recently I lost that first cancer friend, watching her available treatments dwindle until first nothing worked and then nothing was left.

I am not past that grief, even though I haven’t shut the door to keep out the village and protect myself. In my sadness I wonder how these villages we have built survive when everyone in them is dying. But then I think about that friend and the countless others who continue to welcome others the same way I was welcomed; the villages undergoing constant change, each of us finding new homes filled with the loss of our pasts, the love of right now and our spoken and unspoken hopes.

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