Last week someone I knew died. I didn’t know her really well. Our paths crossed briefly for about a year and a half, we were both leaders of women’s Bible study and in the same community leader group. Our contact was brief, our conversations short, we also enjoyed Bible study together at our community leaders house that summer for a few weeks. We stayed in contact as friends on Facebook after I left that church in 2017, the year before I would also be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Back in 2015 and 2016 when we met and shared time together, she was bravely fighting breast cancer. I remember our team leader mentioning her surgery and her drains from surgery and treatment in prayer requests. She missed a few weeks because of treatment but most of the time she was there. Looking back it impresses me because I was clueless at the time but now know what she was going through. I only half listened, I was a NICU nurse so I knew nothing about oncology or breast cancer. I was focused on the women at my table and so I never became very close to the other leaders, I never got to really know her the way I wish I had. I look back and feel so insensitive for the lack of care and concern I showed her. She just always looked so good and she was there enough that it didn’t seem all that bad.
I have a very bad memory for details of people’s stories that they share, which always makes me feel bad especially when they seem to remember details about me. Once I was diagnosed she reached out once and reminded me that she had just gone through breast cancer herself. I had so many people reaching out to me and was so wrapped up in my own situation that I have no idea what I responded to her.
In December 2019 she posted a link to her “Caring Bridge” site on her Facebook post. I clicked on it and read it which prompted me to read her journal entries all the way back to her diagnosis in 2014. I learned many things about her then that I didn’t know before. First, she had been cancer free for almost 5 years and after a routine, every 6 month post cancer check up, discovered that the cancer had returned in her lungs, liver, spine and hip. Stage 4. I learned that her original breast cancer was invasive ductal carcinoma and was HER2 positive just like mine. Our treatments and surgeries were even similar in many ways which I will touch on. Also, she was exactly 4 years ahead of me at diagnosis.
I immediately wrote to her expressing my love and concern and understanding of what she must be feeling, knowing words were inadequate. She was receiving 100s of messages and wasn’t answering most, not that I expected her to. She was one of those women who had so many friends and a huge support system. So I followed and prayed and commented from a distance. She was well loved and cared for over the last 13 months of her life before she went peacefully and joyfully to meet Jesus, with family and loved ones at her side constantly. She wrote about her experiences on Caring Bridge along the way sharing her journey and inspiring and blessing others.
I know she is in a wonderful place. Her family, though grieving, is truly at peace and writing about her grace and strength through the process and what her last days were like. Even after her passing they are still blessing others with their words. Truly inspiring.
Even though we weren’t close we share an experience in this life that makes me feel close to her, they call us “pink sisters.” But more than that she was the only one I knew personally that had the exact same kind of aggressive breast cancer that I had. So, yes, I was very interested in following her story over the last 13 months and making so many comparisons in our cancer journey for myself. It brought that nagging reality to the surface that this could come back, it could spread and the reminder that the chances were higher because of the aggressive nature of it.
I talked about her with my husband and my mom and even my oncologist every now and then. It helped to talk about it, to talk about her, to talk about how hopeful I was that the differences in our overall treatment, doctor and facility choices and pathology reports would hopefully mean mine would not spread and reoccur like hers did.
I knew she chose to stop treatment after Christmas because it wasn’t prolonging her life by much anymore and causing her a lot of pain and illness. She went into hospice care at home with her family with the expectation of a month left to live. She got her month. Yesterday I read that she passed last Thursday and I read the words of her husband, Danny, yes I see the irony in our husbands having the same name. Today I read her daughters words then texted my Danny and told him that Roquel died. He commiserated with me over it expressing his gratefulness that we sought treatment at City of Hope. A few minutes later I asked him what was really on my mind…”will I be ok?”
Along with his wise words was the reassurance I was looking for, “of course you will.” Not that he gets to decide that, but hearing that he believes it, helps.
When I was first diagnosed we had HMO insurance and everything was a process, every referral, every test, every separate doctor visit. We discovered it is a very compartmentalized approach to treatment. The doctors don’t work together as a team and they all have different thoughts about what should be done and in what order. I did a lot of research including asking for advice on community pages for best treatment places. In the end we were blessed to be in our open enrollment month and decided it was worth it to pay the money to switch to the PPO and go to City of Hope, a premier cancer hospital, and be treated by a team of breast cancer focused specialists that collaborate together instead of a generic oncologist and general surgeon that do not.
We learned a lot along the way and my treatment, testing and different specialties involved were extensive. They had a plan and implemented it together. They knew the significance of my specific type of breast cancer and the meds necessary to treat it. The actions taken were quick and effective. Appointments made before referrals approved because they were a cancer facility and didn’t take no for an answer from the insurance companies. They fight for you! You aren’t left twisting in the wind or should I say the whims of people sitting at a desk putting their stamp of approval or disapproval on record after record.
I could go on and on about the differences we discovered in the different medical approaches to oncology but in this case all I want to focus on is what I compared in reading Roquels journal entries about her treatment and my own treatment.
They didn’t discover that her cancer was HER2 positive until months into treatment after her surgery. So she had 2 different series of chemo treatment initially prior to her surgery which was not combined with reconstruction. Then once they discovered the aggressive cancer she had, she was then started on Herceptin, which is HER2 specific, for a year. She had a positive lymph node at the time of her surgery, so they also treated her with radiation.
Before her cancer came back I could see the differences in treatment, diagnosis and progression between us. Her cancer had spread to a lymph node, mine did not. Her chemo treatment was similar but she had been given more chemo drugs initially and Herceptin at the end. I was given Herceptin right from the start. She had to undergo radiation, I did not. She had several more surgeries then me because her reconstruction was done later in several steps. Mine was combined in one surgery, then later a nipple reconstruction. (Because I chose not to keep my nipple tissue to be safe) I was grateful for COH and their thorough and efficient approach.
So when her cancer returned I clung to those differences as a positive for me and my overall outcome for success. I wondered of course if I had stayed with the HMO and had my treatment through a general surgeon, oncologist and facility how much would my treatment have looked like hers, how prolonged would it have been, how different would my outcome have been possibly giving the cancer the opportunity to spread to a lymph node and then hide out in my body, for years possibly, before returning with a vengeance.
These are all legitimate questions and real concerns for a cancer survivor. It has made it very real that someone I know personally had the same exact type of breast cancer and her journey resulted in the cancer returning to invade her body and take her life. 7 years from her diagnosis to her death. It makes me so sad for her and for her family. All the fears and worries I’ve had before, realized in someone else. Then of course the obvious questions, “is it going to happen to me?” “Is my cancer gone for good or will it return?” “Will I be ok?”
Yes, I can reassure myself with the differences in our treatment, diagnosis and outcomes between us which can and possibly did make all the difference. But, ultimately I have to live with the reality of being a cancer survivor, I just don’t know what the future holds. So I remind myself that I do know who holds my future. I leave my worries and fears where they belong, with Jesus. I trust him with my life whatever is to become of me. I am human of course, so the thoughts are there and are certainly triggered at times. This is where I practice the skill of taking my thoughts captive. The Bible says, who by worrying has added one single day to their life, don’t worry about tomorrow, today has enough troubles of its own. And Jesus says, cast all your cares on me because I care for you. I have told you these things so you may have peace, In this world you will have trouble but take heart I have overcome the world. These are several verses that I am grateful to have hidden in my heart and memory. It is Gods Word that sustains me, fills me with hope and gives me the peace that surpasses understanding.
I am so grateful for this hope and peace we find in God alone, not just for myself and the unknowns of the future but for Roquels family. She is in heaven with Jesus, she is fine. A place with no more sorrows, pain or tears, in the presence of Jesus. Although, her family, has to deal with her absence, grieve the loss and live their unknown futures here on this earth, they also have the peace of knowing where she is. They will see her again and even though our future here is unknown, we are loved by a known God and are assured of our eternal future in heaven with him.
Rest In Peace dear pink sister! Until we meet again.
There is hope beyond this! To God be the glory!