Today is a beautiful day to find peace.
This post is dedicated to a dear friend who passed this morning, having fought for so long against ovarian and colon cancer.
We all know someone affected by cancer – friends, parents, sons & daughters, grandparents, children and elderly alike. Treatment is an arduous process to say the least, no cures exist despite the billions of dollars we spend for research, the path to recovery (if so blessed) can be lonely. Yet we are given the privilege of hope from the lives of the people with cancer and those who care for them.
I met my dear friend through my volunteering with Cancer Connection – a small non-profit organization in Austin. The idea of Cancer Connection is to help people know they are not alone, that others have been through this before and will be there for the next groups who will suffer through this. Volunteers visit oncology centers and hospitals to chat and fetch water or coffee. But their main endeavor is a matching program – matching patients with survivors, caregivers with caregivers – someone who might have the same diagnosis or someone with the same life experiences. Each volunteer meets their match where they are in their process – in grieving or in hope – making a connection over coffee or phone calls or cards.
I’m so grateful to be a part of this organization. I have not had cancer or been a caregiver for one with cancer. I do however feel connected to these people both on a personal level and in gaining insight to bring into my health policy work. I spend every Tuesday morning at my oncology center, going around and bugging people – asking if they want water or a blanket, making coffee (which took me forever to learn how to do), asking what they’re reading, commenting on the weather. Some want to talk about their cancer. Most want to talk about life – family, work, randomness.
Perhaps it sounds odd, but I love my time there. The people I meet are wonderful. I hear so many incredible stories. There’s a lady who taught me my favourite word: sesquipedalian (meaning long winded). Another lady shows off the jewelry her grandchildren make her. One man was dressed to the nines this week because it was his birthday and the nurse brought him strawberry ice cream. Another used to be a ventriloquist for the circus. I could go on endlessly. I miss them when I don’t see them, and I hate to see them go when they finish treatment (though hopeful they’ll never have to return).
My dear friend was a weekly patient in the infusion room. She was quiet at first, never wanted a thing. I think it was her quilting that first got us talking. She’s a wonderful quilter and sold her quilts at Saturday markets. Then we talked about everything else. Her grandchildren not knowing how to read cursive because they don’t teach cursive in school. Favourite Sex and the City episodes. Politics. Family – her son who suffered severe brain damage at the age of 19, not wearing a helmet (please wear helmets) and her struggles getting him the care he needs in nursing home. Nothing was off limits. She became my match.
Last month she fell ill and was hospitalized. I spent a few days visiting. The connection only strengthened and her husband and I became friends. She soon was moved home to hospice. Admittedly it was difficult to get myself to see her at home for many personal reasons. Then I got the message that she was close to letting go. My friend was leaving. I painted her toenails in a lucid moment, and brushed her hair in a non-lucid moment. I watched her rest and held her hand. I learned quickly from the hospice nurse what was next. I sat with her husband – in such a lonely place thinking how blessed I am that they would welcome me into their family, their lives, their home at this most difficult and private time.
In this waiting time in her final days, there was nothing to do, nothing to be said. Knowing her time was near, we could only try to,
Dwell comfortably in the midst of profound uncertainty. – John Keats
I wanted to stay longer, but I was beckoned elsewhere. This morning she was able to let go and be at peace.
Today is not really about policy. Many issues arise around this story – research (including stem cell research) and clinical trials, prevention efforts, treatment courses, funding, insurance matters, time with a primary care physician to discuss end of life choices, coordination of care between providers, mental health support, religion and culture, and palliative and end of life care (including physician assisted suicide). But today is about my friend and how such a strong connection could develop in just a year. Today is not about these topics which can be strongly polarizing (and I appreciate it if your comments would stay away from the politics on this post).
I will encourage you to stay healthy, get check-ups and screens for cancers like mammograms and colonoscopies, talk to your loved ones about your wishes for end of life care like do not resuscitate orders (DNRs), organ donation, funeral arrangements (these talks are hard, but necessary as we never know when our time will come), update your will, support research (for cancer and all diseases), and most importantly – love each other every moment. Love each other as you leave for the day, love those that annoy you, love those on the street, love the ones who are no longer themselves as they leave us. You don’t have to always like them, but try to love them none-the-less.
My friend left me an incredible gift – HOPE. I will remember her as the feisty red-head she was, fighting so hard till the end. I will hold her in my heart.
Never shall I forget the time I spent with you. Please continue to be my friend, as you will always find me yours. – Ludwig Van Beethoven
- Cancer Connection
- American Cancer Society
- National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health