The day I found out that my best friend had cancer was, despite what clichés will tell you, not at all like any other day. I wasn’t with her when she got the news, and we never wasted the time we had together after that day talking about it, but I’m sure that, like me, it was the worst day of her life.
I was at work and expecting a call from her about a procedure she was having. She had texted me a few days before and told me about a colonoscopy she had, and I knew they had found a mass. I worked for a gastroenterologist at the time, and I knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good. I checked my phone obsessively, texting and calling our mutual friend who was there at the hospital with her. Our friend had decided that it was too devastating for me to hear over the phone, so he sent my husband to my work to deliver this news face to face. My husband’s face was ashen as he said that he didn’t know anything except that it was cancer. He stood there, uncharacteristically helpless while I sobbed and sobbed. I don’t remember asking my boss if I could leave, I may not even have said it in words, I was useless. I don’t remember walking to my car, or getting in. The first memory I have was of calling my mom and finding it hard to say the words: “Mom, the procedure – I guess it’s … Mom, Nicole has cancer.” Though she is a seasoned nurse with years of experience, it was unbelievable information, and she didn’t understand. I had to keep repeating it, and with each time, it made less and less sense.
“Cancer. I don’t know what type. I don’t know what stage. I think it’s bad.”
I could not smell. I could not taste. I had trouble driving home, forgetting the route I had taken daily for 6 years. We made plans to drive immediately to Alabama, where she lived.
There are a few events in my life that I would almost rather die than relive. And that car ride to see her is by far number one. I sat, numb and dumb and lifeless and helpless while my husband drove. There was a steady stream of tears on my face the whole time, broken up only by rasping, hateful sobs that sounded more like screams. WHY HER? is all I could think. There are so many awful, terrible, evil or just plain useless people in this world. Why her? Why the woman who showed me how to be happy? Why the woman who lent me her heirloom string of pearls for my “something borrowed” on my wedding day? Why this darling lady with the heart of gold who had a sharp wit and incredible singing voice? It was the longest and shortest drive we ever took there. Long because I could not bear not being near her, and short because how on earth could I prepare myself to see her? We left my daughter who was 4 at the time with my mom. It struck me as we neared the Alabama border that it was the first night she was ever away from both of us. What would have seemed so dramatic 24 hours ago was now a minor detail. I knew the moment that thought crossed my mind that I would never be the same. Everything else was trivial compared to this.
When I saw her, I was breezy and light. I gave her sweet kisses and promised her that my family and I would be going to see her there constantly. I told her how much I love her. I sat with her for probably less than 10 minutes, and though the room was full of her other loved ones, she was the only person I saw. Nurses shooed all of us out. She had been through a lot and needed to rest. As soon as her hospital room door closed behind me, I broke down again. I think we ate, I’m told we slept, but I don’t remember any of it.
When the diagnosis came, it was ovarian cancer, stage 3c. We had almost exactly 2 years with her after that day, and then she died. I crammed in as much love and happiness and singing and laughter as I could, but how could it ever be enough?
How are 24 months meant to make up for decades? She will never get to see how accomplished and incredible her own daughters are or meet my second daughter. I will never again get to see her utilizing her many talents or what we could have done together. Instead, that terrible day stands in for more than half a lifetime. Countless happy memories replaced by a bitter, awful collection of hours.
There are many types of cancer, and none of them are good, but this is a particularly cruel one. It is difficult to detect, and even harder to treat once it’s in the late stages. Nicole was diagnosed in September, she died in September, and September is the month for ovarian cancer awareness. Awareness is desperately needed. Every September, I am a broken record, a leaky faucet. I spread the knowledge any way I can.
I would give anything to spare YOU or your best friend a day like that one.
Nicole was up to date on her pap smears, but pap smears don’t detect ovarian cancer. Though this is often thought to be an older woman’s disease, she was 34 at the time of diagnosis and 36 when she died. Also, unlike certain types of cervical cancer, ovarian cancer is not preventable by any current vaccine. Early detection is the one and only key, and the signs are very subtle. Change in bowel habits, bloating, loss of appetite, and frequent urination are a few. If you (or a loved one) have any of these symptoms for longer than 2 weeks, see your doctor.
Share this story, and this one too!
Tell the women you know, and please wear TEAL this September. It is the most fervent desire of my heart to prevent even one person from the emotional pain suffered by everyone who loved Nicole so dearly, or the physical pain and extreme loss she suffered herself.
Please visit the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition for more information!