"No -- lung cancer," she told me. "My gym just named me fitness woman of the month in January, my husband had surgery, and then I had this persistent cough that they told me was pneumonia. It was not pneumonia. I mean, I was going to spinning classes and walking eighteen rounds of golf and then this."
I asked if they'd caught it early -- cancer small talk.
"No, it's Stage 4," she said meekly.
"Mine was, too," I told her. "From the beginning. That was almost three years ago -- breast cancer."
She was at the infusion center for her first chemo, but had been too dehydrated to receive it, so was just getting fluids. She confessed she wasn't sure if she'd continue to fight the cancer, she was so scared at the prospect of chemo, although she admitted she'd thought radiation had been a piece of cake.
"I'm lucky," she went on. "I've had a full life. I'm seventy-six."
I just about fell out of my chair. This woman did not look like a 76-year-old. She looked like the fitness woman of the month, with porcelain skin and a cute blonde pixie cut.
"I was always so healthy, had my tonsils out when I was five, but that's been it," she went on, expressing to me what I've come to know far too well: that cancer doesn't always care whether you're otherwise healthy. That cells mutate, go rogue, form tumors for reasons we don't fully understand.
We spent the next couple of hours chatting intermittently. My friend Sandi came to sit with me and encouraged this woman -- she introduced herself as Grandma Sue ("That's my mom's name! She's coming to visit and take care of me this week," I shared) -- to go forward with chemo. We both did.
But it got me thinking about what I would do if I were forty years older than I am now. If I didn't have Quinn and Chris and my (relative) youth to want to stick around for. Would I still put up this much of a fight? Would I feel lucky at the life I'd lived, and be ready to let go, to give up this life? The concept scares the daylight out of me, so I didn't pursue that line of conversation with Sue.
Instead, I did the only thing that I know how to do: gave her a vote of confidence that if she's healthy otherwise, she'll be able to handle chemo. Promised her that the meds they give to combat side effects are truly remarkable. We told her to watch a marathon of "Downton Abbey" when the fatigue lays her flat on the couch.
Even as I was talking, part of me felt like I was chickening out, taking the easy, familiar route rather than dive into why Sue felt it would be okay if she stopped getting treatment. I wasn't comfortable talking about accepting death. Does that part come after a certain amount of time living in cancer land? (P.S. I would not make for a good hospice volunteer.)
At the end of the day, Sue's 82-year-old, equally fit husband came to pick her up. She introduced Sandi and me as the ones who'd been giving her a shot of courage, and I was flattered. Then her husband shook my hand and said, "Thank you."