When I first described her to my spouse, I used phrases like "put together", "a force to be reckoned with", "the most prepared one in the room", and "someone I can learn a lot from". Now that she has passed, I think of several things. A bright shining beacon standing tall, casting her light far and wide, providing guidance and direction to everyone around her. A giant bird from Greek mythology with wings spread wide and so many of us nestled in the warmth of her embrace. She was a role model, a mentor, a friend. She was strong and fierce and a little bit frightening to me at first. She was wide open to life and all its experiences, embracing the joy and the pain and everything in between. She was fearless.
Her fearlessness was contagious. In her sphere of influence, risk was necessary, but planning was essential. She encouraged me to move forward professionally, never doubting my own ability to succeed even when (especially when) I doubted myself. Failure was sometimes inevitable, but usually avoidable if one had a good risk strategy and an accurate assessment of the work to be done. Bold, but prepared, she embraced everything that came her way.
But she also paid attention to what I was doing outside of work. As our professional relationship turned more personal, she learned of my photography hobby and expressed praise for my efforts. She began reading this blog and shared some of the recipes and advice I posted. She knew that if something is important to your friends and colleagues, it should also be at least somewhat important to you. This is one of the cornerstones of healthy relationships and part of what allows them to become deeper and closer and richer.
In the face of terminal illness, she did not shut down and withdraw into herself. She expanded and drew more people near her like some brilliant supernova. She wanted to experience everything, and this included the wonderful experience of getting to know other people. She knew that our relationships with others adds a richness to life, enhancing our own experiences and providing us with a more full view of the world as our experiences are refracted through the crystalline lens of a group experience.
She was also a private person, handling her personal pain carefully. I knew her for almost a year before I learned she had cancer. Through chemotherapy and radiation and a full pharmacy of drugs, her appearance remained flawless and her demeanor unshakable. Even though she was determined to live beyond the disease, she embraced the experience as another part of her life, and did what she needed to do to get through it. No denial for her. And we went along with her as cancer ran its sometimes sneaky course of disappearing only to return with a vengeance. We walked with her at the annual Komen Race for the Cure. We celebrated with her each time she seemed to have kicked it. We embraced her each time it came back and continued to spread.
She is part of a growing list of women I have met who developed breast cancer. The stories include a young woman who barely survived and her mother who knew of the genetic component of many cancers. The mother went to her doctor for a screening, and a small tumor was found. It was removed before it had a chance to take root. Both women survived. A vegetarian who followed all the dietary recommendations for prevention and developed it anyway. She kicked it, it came back, she kicked it again. A friend from high school who is proud of her struggle and so grateful to be cancer-free. A blogger I follow who rails against the marketization and trivialization of this epidemic by the prevalence of pink ribbons on everything from cookies to KFC dinners, yet there is still no cure.
And what is the source of this epidemic? How can we protect ourselves? There are alarming reports of carcinogens in our food packaging, as well as in the additives in many prepackaged foods. Yet maintaining a healthy diet of natural whole foods is not a guaranteed preventative. Earlier this week, new studies questioned the effectiveness of vitamin D as a cancer preventative. Is breast cancer inevitable for US women?
While this is a frightening thought, we cannot live our lives in fear. Breast cancer may be the monster in the closet for me and my peers, but there are things we can do. Early detection is often the key to overcoming the disease. And most of us know what we need to do:
- A monthly self-exam, usually after our menstrual cycle. This makes us familiar with our bodies so it is easier for us to detect if something has changed.
- Annual visits to the gynecologist. She will also perform a breast exam and may be able to detect danger before it grows.
- Bi-annual mammograms beginning at age 40.
- A healthy diet and an active lifestyle. This never hurts. While it may not be the secret to prevention, it ensures that we are strong and healthy in body, mind, and spirit and could improve our chances of survival if we develop cancer.
This week I lost an important and valuable member of my circle. While we were not best friends, she was important to me in so many ways. I will always remember her fearless embrace of life - all of life - and her uncanny ability to face everything with a smile. This week, her regular reminders for me to smile have echoed through my psyche. I will carry that, along with all my cherished memories of her, as I move forward through my own life, enriched for the time I had with her.