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When the Breast Friends get together, we sometimes cry. We always laugh. One morning, a woman came over to our table and said in a serious voice: "I'm warning you. I've just called the bylaw office to report you for laughing too hard." She couldn't believe it when we told her we were a cancer support group.
"How many breasts do you think are at this table?" Claudia asked her. There were four breasts among the six of us. She was stunned.
The group had started at a hospital four years ago with an assortment of women from 30 to seventy-something. Each of us had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. As a previously healthy and resilient 58-year-old, I wondered if I was the only one arriving with trepidation.
But there was a buzz of recognition as we congregated. For the first time since my diagnosis, I was in a roomful of women living and breathing the same experience as me. When we introduced ourselves in a circle of comfy armchairs, the warmth in the room bubbled over. So did the terror. Soon, we were urgently trading intelligence at every available moment.
At first, only one other woman was losing her hair. Her treatment had also started with chemo. Most of the others were on a more typical track: They'd recently had surgery, usually a mastectomy, and chemo would start soon. We talked about being afraid of losing our breasts, our hair, our identities and possibly our lives.
One woman was more worried about losing her hair than her breast. We shared strategies about coping – with or without partners and children – with financial worries, doctors, the medical system, drugs and infirmity.
As the weeks went on, being at the group started to feel like coming home. We'd peel off bandanas and wigs as soon as we arrived, miraculously comfortable, even liberated, in our baldness. When someone broke down we'd rally around her. A few minutes later we'd be laughing uproariously. It was an oasis.
The hospital group ended after six weeks, so we decided to meet for lunch once a month on our own. We'd come when we could, when we weren't holed up dealing with the ravages of chemo or burns and blisters from radiation. We worried when someone didn't get there.
After eight rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, lymph node dissection and 22 radiation sessions I landed in hospital for 10 days. Complications from radiation had created fluid on my heart and one lung, making breathing difficult. Immune-depleted, visually impaired from chemo and suffering from shingles, I was grateful for the encouraging e-mails that poured in from the group.
Slowly, things started to turn around for us. Some were looking forward to getting back to work; others anticipated work with anxiety and dread. I worried about crashing if I went back too soon.
As our numbers dwindled, those of us not heading back to work right away figured out a new formula for getting together. Gwen came up with the name Breast Friends for the six of us of similar vintage who would gather for breakfast. Along the way we acquired new members, including Nadia, who at 32 was young enough to be our daughter.
We would squeeze around a three-cornered table in the back of a neighbourhood café and lean in, dishing up stories of what was happening to each of us. Kae wondered if anyone else was swimming in circles with only one breast!
Over time, the conversation and tone subtly began to shift. We were getting on with our lives – travelling, pursuing artistic ventures, embarking on new fitness routines, going back to work. There were curling competitions, writing projects, retirement plans and adventures with children and grandchildren. We still talked about cancer, its aftermath and worries about recurrence. We consulted about drugs and side effects, lymphedema and follow-up with our doctors. But cancer was an underpinning now, no longer the central focus. Most of us were solidly on the road to recovery.
Except the gentle, dark-eyed Nadia. When she joined Breast Friends, she had already been through treatment. Then the cancer came back in full force, and she had to do it all over again. Nadia and her boyfriend decided to get married. At breakfast a few months later, she had a long-stemmed rose for each of us when she told us the cancer had spread to her lungs.
Nadia had already been to the funeral home to pick out her coffin. She had asked her relatives in El Salvador to bury her beside her mother there. She'd talked to her doctor about palliative care. These were not morbid acts: She wanted to live her life as fully as possible with the time she had left. In June, Nadia and her husband went to Machu Pichu, a lifelong dream.
Nadia died in December. When we gathered afterward, we remembered her beautiful smile, how she had felt at home with us. We talked about how we missed her, how her life had been cut short far too soon, and what the Breast Friends meant to us. Especially, we remembered how she taught us to live our lives to the fullest with whatever time we have. And to laugh whenever we can. Carpe diem!