November 16, 2013 Two days prior to surgery I gathered together some of the girlfriends who had supported me during 4 months of chemo and recovery. My friend Ron Gladney, the manager at The Benson Hotel, upgraded us to The Presidential Suite where I piled all the gals together on the same bed where Obama slept for a group photo full of red lipstick. Photos by Paige Stoyer as part of The Real Thing series.
To celebrate the end of chemotherapy and prepare myself for surgery, I decided to throw a little party and invite only a small group of girlfriends. Please don’t be hurt if I missed you or you are of the boy variety. I know I missed some. I wanted to keep it small and I was still VERY tired from chemo. While there were so many friends and family members who sent well wishes or offered support, all of which were greatly appreciated, there were some that really stood out. Those were the ones who showed up at my house over and over again. They came over, kept me company and did the work even when I couldn’t articulate what I needed, when or how. Read more on what they did and what it meant at the end of the post.
The photos below are images of just getting ready for the party. Simple, and yet I was still very fatigued from the chemo. This was my first real outing after a month of recovery. Mostly hairless and tired, my original breasts out on the town for their final party. My little sister, Katy, in my blond wig I would throw off during the evening due to the hot flashes that still plague me every hour. My eye liner painted on thick before my fake eye lashes, which I never cared enough to learn how to apply myself, arrived with Lily, who’s a makeup artist. The 8 bangles that hung from my wrist for each week of chemo awaiting the new addition of rhinestone ones for surgery. My hands on my breasts as I realize I will come out of surgery without feeling in them.
Women, yes women. I found it was primarily the women in my life, although not exclusively, who helped me the most to get through chemo. Some were fairly new to my life and I was as surprised by that as I was by the absence of a few people I thought would be there, but could not for whatever reason. I know, I’m lucky, I have a lot of support. However, the 4 months of chemotherapy and recovery was quite a lonely time despite this. Every other week, once my mom or older sister would go home, I was still ill and then alone in my house. It was hard to reach out to others and articulate what I needed even if they asked. That’s why this group of women, as well as a few not pictured here, were so outstanding, each in their own ways. I also kept the big stack of cards, Facebook messages and phone messages, even those relayed via family members, on the coffee table. They were wonderful and helpful, I loved looking at them, but when I was in the fog of chemo side effects it was people showing up in person and quietly staying with me that really made a difference. While others may need space when they are ill, I found I needed people with me, not just for short visits, but for hours of quiet time. I’m sure I wasn’t good at expressing that however.
A few examples of what these friends did that made such a difference Some women came to medical or chemo appointments, Janis Picker, Claire Bard, sister Katy Nida, and others not pictured, Amy Bradshaw, Linda Alper, birthmother Pat Nida and sister Paula Johnson and mother Helen Brown. I needed someone there to help me process and remember. There were so many doctors and so many details! Some like Leisl Stientjes and Sarah Sharp spent the night, picked up prescriptions, ran errands, washed dishes, vacuumed, gave hugs and cried with me. Some of the women, like Caroline Petrich, made soup every single week. Simple, consistent, helpful. Some, like Wendy Weaver and Whitney Pillsbury, brought delicious food and sent messages nearly every week. Some just sat with me while I ate, making sure I took my medication. Far too many meds for me to manage on my own some days. Paige Stoyer not only documented chemo and doctor appointments with her photography, but listened and helped me process what I was hearing. Lisa Helderop reminded me “it will get better,” which were words she had repeated often at another difficult time in my life. This helped me focus on the fact that all things change and indeed, this time, too, would get better. Neighbor April Hansen shared tears and groceries. Becca Blevins rented space in my studio to help cover a bit of my overhead, photographed the Octopus shoot and quickly became a close friend. Four of my oldest and closest girlfriends, Melissa Shields, Mo Sami, Helena Echberg and Anne-Marie Notaras live in other cities. They called and came to stay with me when and if they could and this mattered tremendously. My home was often filled with flowers from Lily Hutchins of Flowers in Flight sometimes via our mutual business friend, John Middleton, who once left a bouquet that read, “Love you. Fuck cancer,” and came to my house for the day once to “fix shit,” like painting my fence.
What we learned. During that evening, Becca asked everyone to sit in a large circle. Each woman then made a toast to me and some expressed what being there for someone with cancer meant to them. Some of them were surprised to be included in this small group, as if what they had done was not enough. However, what they did seemed huge to me. Some articulated that it was an honor to be let into the process of me going through cancer. I had no idea. They said it made them see that they too could do it if they got breast cancer. Others confessed early doubt as to whether or not I needed them, as Facebook made it appear I had it all together. I certainly did need them. I’m so glad they reached out despite their own fears. There were fears about getting cancer themselves, not from me of course, but how just being around someone who has cancer makes us think about our own vulnerability. Many of the women have had friends or relatives die from cancer. What if I died? Would it be that much more painful to be close to someone then? I have that in my own family and wondered how I would be if any of these women had cancer. They expressed fears that they didn’t know the right things to say and were uncomfortable at times. I said I felt the same way and didn’t know what I would have said to them either. “We all are stumbling around trying to hold one another up,” as my grandmother once said. Yet they showed up again and again. They put aside some of their own needs, busy lives, families and extended their time and love to make room to care for me in their own ways. They did not take it personally when I did not respond or was too fuzzy with chemo brain or fatigue to tell them what I needed. They gave me the benefit of the doubt and did what they thought would help. They, like so many others who showed up, did help and I am grateful.
I realized that night that I have learned to receive love and help more openly now. To let others make a contribution not only because it helped me but because it helped them. They wanted to support me in my cancer journey, weren’t always sure how, but tried anyway. They taught me. The next time someone I love, or want to love, has cancer, I hope I show up and keep showing up for them just like these women have for me.
REQUEST: If any of the women who were there that night want to make comments on your own experience of being there for me during cancer I would love that. Or others just reading who might want to share their thoughts. This seems like a topic that could really benefit readers supporting their friends and family who are going through chemo.