Karla

When you get diagnosed with cancer, you meet a lot of other people who have or had cancer. It’s like another family, and we are all connected through our struggles, through our mortality, through our fears, through our perseverance, through the change and uncertainty that cancer brings.

For many people, cancer is a one-time diagnosis. They get treated and it doesn’t recur or metastasize. Others start off with a stage 4 diagnosis, or have a lump removed and then months or years later find it’s spread to an organ.

Sooner or later we lose someone to cancer from this new family. When one of these new family members dies, it’s a loss for all of us.

Karla was one of my radiation techs that I saw every day for six weeks. She was a breast cancer survivor and a constant reassurance on radiation days. She had the bedside manner that you wanted next to you when you were in that very vulnerable position on the radiation bed. She was comforting, smart, and sensitive. Your cancer treatment team isn’t there to be ‘best buds’ with you and there are only a few people during my treatment that I could say I truly connected with beyond the patient-caregiver relationship. Karla was one of them.

I saw a lot of robotic doctors and nurses while I was sick, people who say mmm hmmmm mmm hmmmm without really listening. Karla was real. She was transparent. She had compassion and a deeper understanding of exactly what I was going through because she had been down that path. She saw herself in me. I saw myself in her.

When I went back to my radiation oncologist for my six month check up, Karla was gone. She had died the week before from cancer that had come back with a vengeance. When the nurse told me all that would come out of my mouth was “No!” and “Why??” and “I don’t understand.” I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that the Karla I knew had died from her cancer. The grief I felt as I drove away from the hospital was overwhelming.

I didn’t know Karla well, but it was like I knew a part of her well. Sometimes there is something that connects us to someone else that is indescribable. I was in the middle of treatment, so I don’t remember the things we talked about or the things she told me. When the radiation nurse told me that Karla had died, I couldn’t remember the details Karla had shared with me about her own life. I felt guilty about that, and selfish. And betrayed: by the lack of details in my memory of her, by life, by death.

Only a few weeks passed between Karla’s cancer relapse and her death. I knew Karla had dogs, not children. I knew she was smart, compassionate, and present. I knew she was sad when she talked about cancer, whether it was mine or hers or someone else’s cancer. I knew she had a husband that she loved who loved her supported her. When I visited her obituary page, I saw how many other people loved her, too, like I did.

We’re all so caught up in our own lives, and in the what ifs. I was just trying to get through treatment, and Karla was there for me. I looked forward to seeing her every day. For all I know she had already been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I never considered asking. I thought she would always be there.

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My relationship with cancer

Lucky doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about my relationship with Amelia. We’ve been together for 20 years. We met at a yoga center where I was working, and Amelia – who was a vegetarian, non-drinking straight woman – was “finding herself.” I’ve always said that one day she was touching her toes, and then she found me, meat, and bourbon. -Insert my laughter here-

We’ve survived something most couples don’t: Owning restaurant business together. Having a business together catapulted our relationship to a whole new level. It took a while to navigate, but we’re awesome at it. We are a machine. (Here’s a tip for any of you who wonder if you could do the same: You both need to excel at different things and you need to accept those strengths and not be a pissy-pant because you think the other person has it easy. Trust me, no one has it easy. And you can’t be a control freak.)

So now here Amelia and I are dealing with cancer. Cancer is the most self-centered thing that has ever happened to me. It’s all about me and my cancer most of the time. But in reality, it’s not just about me. It’s also about Amelia, my caregiver, my Love. Sharing your relationship with cancer sucks. It is a physical and emotional strain day in and day out. It doesn’t go away. We don’t forget about it. It’s not like just having a bad day. This is forever.

I won’t go too much into the details of HER2 positive breast cancer, but there is a chance the cancer will show up again in my lifetime either at the same site (local recurrence) or a metastasis (a distant recurrence). The longer it takes to come back, the better because maybe there will be a better treatment developed in the coming years.

Then again, the cancer may never come back. It could be completely gone and we may never have to go through this again. That what I believe 80% of the time, but when I’m in the 20% place I’m obsessive and gloomy. It’s not a good place. I think over time that 80% optimism will increase until, as one good friend of mine put it, one day I will go through a whole day without thinking about cancer, my mastectomy, or chemo.

I know this: if the cancer does recur, Amelia and I will deal with it, and it will be hard. But our love transcends time, difficulty, grief, and everything in between. Love is my motivation.