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Breast Cancer and Survival. Pass It On.

Brenda Coffee, age 21.
©Survivorship Media Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

While we reside on this mortal coil we call “life,” each of us is called upon to wear many different hats. While some fit better than others, and some people wear them better than others, have you ever thought about how many of these hats are related to our survival or the survival of someone else? In the last nine weeks I’ve worn several hats, not of my choosing. I’ve realized the roles I’ve played while wearing them are designed not just to teach me lessons, but to help others I meet along the way. In doing so, it has been a good way for me to cope with the unwanted events in my own life.

One of the recent bright spots in my life has been helping a friend through breast reconstruction surgery. We met online; she’s from out of town, and she reads my blog. When I learned she was going to be alone for this surgery and was going to take a taxi from a hotel to the hospital, then when surgery was over, take a taxi back to the hotel, I couldn’t let her do that. By allowing me to be her caregiver, she has given me a huge gift, because helping her has gotten me out of the midst of my grief, if only for a couple of days.

From the moment she and I arrived at the hospital, it was like I was watching a replay of a movie in which I’d already starred. If you count two lumpectomies, two mastectomies, one DEIP flap reconstruction and one implant reconstruction, two revisions and two nipple reconstructions, I’ve had 10 breast cancer surgeries and eight rounds of chemo. There isn’t a space in the pre-op staging area of this hospital I haven’t resided in more than once.

Take the first bed on the left: I remember James leaning on the bed rail, holding my hand, the one that wasn’t tethered to IVs, and bringing it to his lips. He grinned big and said, “While you’re in surgery, don’t forget your Jimmy loves you.” The third bed on the right brought back memories of my friend Mary Jane with a video camera, and the bed on the end was where my friend Mignon reassured me they would find no more cancer. The other day in pre-op, while waiting with my new friend, I saw several of my former doctors and anesthesiologists preparing for other surgeries, as well as the surgical nurse from my breast surgery number nine. In fact, there’s a picture of the two of us on one of my previous blog posts.

Being a caregiver is not an easy job. Caregivers don’t get much sleep, are often left alone to worry, chauffeur, fetch food and generally feel helpless. Caring for my friend that day reminded me of what a great caregiver I had in James. He carried out every duty cheerfully and reassuringly as though he had nothing better to do than tend to my every need. What a special man he was. I can only hope I cared for my friend even a fraction of the way James cared for me.

Lately I’ve been wearing an additional caregiver hat. Another friend is watching and waiting for her husband Michael to die. Like James, no one saw Michael’s death coming, but unlike me, she’s had a couple of weeks, not just moments, to get used to the idea, not that it makes it any easier because it doesn’t. Even though I lost James nine weeks ago, and I know what she’s going through, I also know my words are of little comfort to her. Coping with Michael’s death will be something she has to do primarily on her own, and because I know the road she is embarking on, my heart breaks for her.

Grieving the loss of James has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Last Sunday night I literally dropped to my knees in sobs and, once again, begged God to help me through this pain. Missing James and not being to do anything about it except linger in this achingly slow passage of time has been agonizing. The day after my prayer I realized that while it doesn’t seem like it, I am beginning to move forward. I am moving though some of this pain.

While I’d rather be an expert in the splendors of the Byzantine Empire, or obscure Mayan botanical remedies, it seems as though breast cancer and caregiving is destined to be my area of expertise until it’s my turn to shuffle off this mortal coil. I believe every one who’s experienced pain and loss has a responsibility to help those around them in need. You may not feel like it, and you don’t have to take it on as an Olympic challenge, but I promise, it will be one of the most therapeutic things you can do for yourself and for someone else. We need one another in order to survive this life, so take what you’ve learned, a little or a lot, and pay it forward.