I knew this woman's passing away wasn't about me, but when I heard the news I still felt like I'd been punched in the gut. I know we all have different stories; everybody's disease blueprint is unique. I know how incredibly lucky I am that I had such a rapid and complete response to chemo. I know that my story isn't her story.
And yet, we are all wrapped up in this together, and so when one of us loses our battle, the rest of our hearts break just a little.
I spent a solid half hour driving to the hospital on the other side of town where the meeting was being held, but I was so hesitant about attending that when I pulled up to the complex at five after the hour, I considered turning around to head home because I was late. Another bald woman rushing up to the building's entrance gave me the guilty nudge I needed to head inside. We rode the elevator up to the second floor together in silence.
As soon as I walked into the meeting room, I felt silly for wearing my wig and prosthetic boobs. But the room was full and by then it was too late to take them off. About a dozen women - half of them either bald or with short buzz cuts - sat around the room, laughing and engaged in conversations with each other. The meeting started with just a quick welcome to the two of us who were new.
A pretty brunette thanked everyone for helping raise money at a comedy show in memory of her best friend, who died at age 33 after a 5-year battle with breast cancer. Not even five minutes into the meeting and I was the one crying. I apologized as I told the group about the woman I'd known, how she left five children behind.
"We've all been there," the director said as she handed me a box of Kleenex.
We had a guest speaker at the meeting, an author who'd written about her journey and spoke about what got her through her battle. A couple of things struck me about her: she was really funny, describing all of the physical changes she'd been through - most of us had been through - since being diagnosed, and she was most certainly not a victim of this disease. None of these women were.
By the end of the meeting, I had taken my wig off (to a room of cheers) to show a woman who'd just started chemo what I look like just three months after chemo. I promised her it wasn't that bad.
The truth is, more and more of us are getting through this, figuring out what it means to be survivors, shoring each other up and cheering each other on - even when it's scary, even when some of us don't make it. Being surrounded by this much strength was much more cathartic than I'd expected. I really need to stop expecting the worst.