Today marks my 8th year as a breast cancer survivor, and it remains every bit as surreal now to say that as it has the previous seven years. As I reflect on everything that has led me to this moment, I feel a profound sense of gratitude, happiness, relief, and grief. Yes, grief, but more on that in a bit.
When you survive any ordeal, whether it be physical, mental, or something else altogether, there is a sense of relief that you made it to the other side, and I definitely feel that. There remains the underlying fear that I will have a recurrence of breast cancer or that I will be diagnosed with some other disease. Overall, though, the more years that I can put between the day I was diagnosed and the present day, the easier it is to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Happiness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, as I am happy that I am still here and grateful for so much that I would have missed had there been a different outcome. In the past year alone, our family celebrated two college graduations, two weddings in our extended family, the birth of our first grandchild, and other big and small milestones and events that brought us much joy. A lot can happen in a year, and this past year served up a lot of fantastic memories.
So, now, we have reached the grief portion of this blog post. For the past 6 ½ weeks, I have avoided writing about the cause of this grief, and I really, really am struggling to do so even now. To talk about my survival without addressing it is impossible, though, and it would be such a disservice to someone who was absolutely instrumental in my own journey. So, I am going to do my best to step outside of my grief and my denial to tell you about my badass friend, Jennifer, whom I lovingly and jokingly nicknamed Blondie, because she is part of the reason that I am still here.
Any time I thought about writing or saying something about Blondie, the song, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria, from The Sound of Music popped into my head. In fact, I can hear it right now as I write this. Let me be clear, Blondie attended Catholic schools, but she never was a candidate to become a nun. I am sure that somewhere she is laughing hysterically and saying, What the hell, KJ? So, why this song? I don’t totally understand why, other than just like Maria, Blondie defied explanation or description and couldn’t be held down.
We met during our first year of high school, and honestly, I was a bit intimidated by her back then. She was a cute blonde cheerleader, but she definitely was not content simply being on the sidelines. Blondie, even at a young age, was loud, fun, and lived life on her own terms. Her story is her story, so, I won’t divulge a lot of personal details about her life, other than to say, she faced challenges along the way and was the first one to say that she was not perfect.
We saw each other periodically after high school, but it wasn’t until we reconnected on Facebook 15 years ago that we formed an unexpected bond. When my world imploded in 2011, Blondie asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch, and I gladly accepted her invitation, as I felt inordinately alone. As we sat across from one another, she asked me to tell her what was going on, and I knew that she genuinely wanted to know and was coming from a place of care and concern.
So, I shared with her about being treated for anxiety and depression, my impending divorce, the unexpected end of some close friendships, and some rumors about me. She listened very intently before saying, I know that you’ve probably heard rumors about me over the years. Louisville is one of the biggest small towns ever, so, yes, I had heard some rumors related to Blondie and told her so. She began to smile and said, Well, they probably were true, but I know that the ones about you aren’t. So, if I can hold my head up high, you can, too. And that was that.
What began as small talk and catching up turned into some of the most meaningful and, at times, okay many times, inappropriately hysterical conversations over time, especially after she was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After her initial diagnosis, she underwent numerous rounds of chemotherapy, which caused her to lose her hair. At that time, she asked me if I was still going to call her Blondie, and I told that bald or not, she would always be Blondie to me. She was, still is, and will forever be Blondie. During her treatment, she would often thank me for being there for her, and neither one of us had any inkling that she would be returning the favor several years later.
In 2015, Blondie had a recurrence of lymphoma, and about a month later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was one of the first people who showed up for me and never left. Not only did she offer me practical advice about how to navigate the gauntlet of healthcare providers, insurance paperwork, and treatment decisions, while working full-time and parenting my two daughters, she made me not take myself or this stupid club, as we referred to it, too seriously.
After we both shed some tears when I told her I had breast cancer, she joked that I did that to take away attention from her renewed battle against lymphoma and teased me about so many things that others may not find funny, but that I still laugh about, even now. I was going to share some of those jokes here, but I decided to keep them to myself for now, as not to risk unintentionally offending someone or having our jokes taken out of context. For both of us, though, laughter was some of the best medicine around indeed, and the more inappropriate, the better.
Cancer was just part of our respective stories, as we both shared a lot, aside from our diagnoses. Relationship ups and downs. Parenting. Getting together with our friends. Prosecco. Late night calls. Text messages. Laughter. Tears. Supporting others who found themselves in this stupid club. Then, cancer re-entered the chat.
This past July, Blondie texted our mutual friend, Gretta, and me one night and asked if we could jump on a call with her. When Blondie called, Gretta and I always answered. From the moment the call began, I had an unexplainable bad feeling, which was later confirmed. Blondie explained that she had been admitted to the hospital that morning. For the fourth time, the cancer was back, and this time, it was back with a vengeance.
At first, even though the situation sounded much more serious than the previous recurrences, I kept telling myself that she would undergo the necessary treatment and go back into remission. Then, we would have new inspiration for our inappropriate humor, and life would return to normal and simply go on. Only this time, it didn’t.
In the early morning hours of September 6, during Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month nonetheless, my beautiful, badass, blonde friend died. Everything happened so, so fast, and I still feel like my head and heart are trying to catch up. Writing this makes it all too real, and I want to hit delete and make it all go away. It’s a reality that quite frankly I don’t want to deal with. She is the third close friend of mine who saw me through my own battle, all the while fighting their own battles simultaneously. Now, they are gone, and I am still here. That’s a lot to wrap my brain around.
So, as I shed happy tears for myself that I survived, I also shed tears of grief that Blondie, Kristene, and Michelle are not here to celebrate their own survival. I am grateful beyond measure to have had them in my life and that they continue to watch over me, and not a day goes by when they don’t come to mind. They are loved and missed by all of us who were so fortunate to know them. Blondie, I will close by saying, we’ve got this, and I know that you are laughing hysterically at this inside joke. I love you big time.