When Another Friend Dies of Cancer, I Ask Myself, ‘What Quirk of Fate Left Me Here?’

As I prepared for my friend’s celebration of life, I reflected on other loved ones I lost to cancer and pondered why I am lucky enough to survive.

I woke up, ready for my friend M’s celebration of life ... or so I thought. Are we ever ready to say goodbye? I thought I was. The day before, I had gathered with friends to arrange tablecloths and flowers. My contribution to the food table was ready.

Days before, I took a special hike with mutual friends in honor of M. All week, the intersections of M’s life and mine had passed in my mind the way my life will one day pass before my eyes. I was surely ready.

Then I sat down to come up with a plan to share photos with M’s family because I had said I would photograph the celebration. My good camera was charged, a blank micro-disk ready for images. Such picture-taking hearkens back to the day my mother handed me a camera at my brother’s funeral and said, “It would be nice to have some pictures.” For M’s family, I was contemplating using an app I had used before, so I checked to see what I might delete to make room for a new folder.

Certainly not K’s wedding album, shared after a glorious wedding outdoors a few summers ago, before K was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. I am not ready to let go of photos where K appears so happy and alive. Looking at her dressed in a gown she stitched herself, flowers in her hair, I finally cried deeper tears for M. And for K. And for A, B, C and D all the way to X. When we cry for one, I think, we inevitably cry for all our loved ones lost to or suffering from cancer.

Even if I have learned to accept death with serenity, saying goodbye remains poignant. In the case of M, it feels especially hard to see her go as we were diagnosed with breast cancer within a year of each other. She was (and is) one of my role models. In fact, during a contemplative moment after her passing, I reminded myself of what a phenomenal woman she was through her illness. She lived her life so well. She lived and loved. While we all wish she could still be here, she leaves a remarkable legacy through her family, service to others and friendships.

I was talking to somebody just after M’s passing around the time Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, died of cancer. “Everybody dies of cancer!” I said, emphatic, jaded, tired of saying the word — even though I knew this was not true. My experience with loss includes a range of causes, although cancer ranks first, contrary to the norm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks cancer second to heart disease, which may be more likely than cancer to kill me, theoretically. I have my doubts about that.

After cancer, we find COVID-19, accidents, strokes, chronic respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and so on, including diabetes. Health issues are intersectional, though. My mother died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. My father died of complications of Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Even so, they both lived far past the age my dear friend M was when she passed. Her death feels too early.

And, too, here I am. What quirk of fate has left me here? I ask this question every time another survivor passes away. As thankful as I am to be alive, cancer as a cause of death resonates because of my experience in the past and my fears for the future, shouting every time it takes another person before a cure is found.

At M’s celebration of life, I held her granddaughter in my arms. This tiny human, beautiful and wise, was the salve that I needed for the moment. Life goes on, I reminded myself. It keeps on keeping on. I have such hopes for the generations that will come after me, when a cure for cancer is found.

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