Two years ago today, my friend Shelli, who blogged at the Dirty Pink Underbelly, died of metastatic breast cancer. Four days after her death, I started writing this post. And couldn’t quite finish it. It wasn’t any easier to finish it today than it was then, but, finally, I did.
[February 17, 2014] This entire thing about making friends via social media is a little dangerous. Especially in the cancer club. What happens when you really bond with someone? What if they’re having a truly execrable day and you want to rush over and do something for them? Except that they live in Timbuktu, and you don’t, and the only chance you have of providing tangible help is if Doctor Who lands his TARDIS in your driveway and whisks you off. Or if Scotty becomes a real person who can actually beam you up. Or if Harry Potter drops in and teaches you how to disapparate. What if they have metastatic breast cancer? What if they have to go to the hospital — again? Sure, you can text and message and email till your fingers fall off. But all the texted hugs in the world feel inadequate in such a circumstance. And yet, bless them, they still tell you that it matters that you’re there, waaaay over there, far away in cyberspace, offering your understanding and affection in bits and bytes.
Such was the nature of my friendship with Shelli. It started off, like many of my closest cyber-friendships have, with us stumbling upon each other, around September of 2012, as we were both girding our loins to endure yet another Pinktober.
I believe we found each other’s blogs, then our blog Facebook pages, and then became friends on Facebook, all about the same time. She told me about her other Facebook page, Cancer Pissed Me Off Today. I told her about helping METAvivor launch their first blog. We conversed a lot via private message. Our first long conversation was about bone mets. It was a conversation that never really ended, as Shelli endured pain, hot spots, and pathological fractures, plus the radiation, chemo, pain meds, and vertebroplasties all aimed at controlling them.
The other thing we talked about a lot was the Pink Peril and our frustration at its pernicious persistence. Last September, as we girded our loins to face our second Pinktober as friends, she said, “I get so frustrated every year when noobs don’t know, don’t get, and keep spouting the pink froth. It feels like swimming upstream. I even have gotten in arguments with others with mets who haven’t been de-pinked, and think that the way to raise awareness is to blend in and be the same as the pink. I feel like a meanie crankie bitch pants.”
Eventually, we discovered that we shared an abiding cyberlove for Carolyn Frayn, who also had metastatic breast cancer. That led to some hilarious three-way communication, knee-deep in noir humor and creative cussing. Carolyn and I were particularly fond of one of Shelli’s posts, Any One of Us Could Go at Any Time, which utterly and humorously destroys the “anyone could get hit by a bus tomorrow” thing, which foolish people — okay, thoughtless jackasses — all too often utter to people with metastatic cancer.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me just provide a little background. As of my last checkups, I do not have metastatic breast cancer. I was diagnosed with widespread, ER/PR+, apparently high-grade DCIS in 2008. I endured the full-freight slash/burn/poison routine, albeit the poison coming in the form of oral anti-estrogen drugs. I did not elect to have reconstruction. I did manage to find and exploit the humor of having a prosthesis that looks like a chicken cutlet. I feel incredibly lucky to have become friends with Shelli and Carolyn. And Rachel. And several other remarkable women who do have metastatic breast cancer. It was Rachel who first coined the phrase “fearless friends,” describing us early-stagers who ‘get it,’ who are informed about metastatic breast cancer, and who are just as appalled that its death toll continues, who have no illusions about its potential to strike anyone. Still, there is a part of me that is humbled and amazed that any of these women would ever want to have me as a friend. Sure, I’m a clinician, and one of my first clinical specialties as a physical therapist was oncology rehab. So, yes, I get it and I got it a long time ago. I like to think, therefore, that of necessity and desire, I’ve developed perhaps more empathy and compassion than the average person. But still, what do I know about living with an expiration date, as Carolyn once put it? So, I feel humbled and grateful that any of these women would regard me as a friend, and not just a casual friend, but someone they could confide in about all the shit they’ve had to endure.
Carolyn used to tell me that she wondered why I would want her as a friend. She once told me that she and Shelli opined that I might be crazy for wanting to be friends with people who were likely to die, horribly, before I did. That stopped me in my tracks for a moment. But then, of course, I reminded her that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, and we both laughed.
On Friday, February 14, 2014, I was schlepping through another crazy workday. I had to drive many more miles than usual to see some of my homecare patients. I tried to schedule them by location, so I could see the distant ones in the morning, and the closer ones in the afternoon. It wasn’t working out. I was a little frustrated, but not overly. That’s life in homecare, after all. I was more frustrated by worry. For weeks, I had been worried about Shelli, who had been in an Arizona nursing home rehab center for several weeks, after being hospitalized for treatment of more bone pain and pathological fractures. Since being transferred to rehab, mets had evidently spread to her meninges, which are the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. She had not been fully conscious for days. She was in horrible pain. It was hard to get accurate, current information about her condition or about what was being done for her. For several days, I had been furiously messaging and emailing a couple of mutual friends, one of whom was there in Arizona and visiting her as often as she could. The other was Carolyn.
On Friday morning, I did not have time before I hit the road to check my emails or Facebook to find out how Shelli was. But I had this feeling. I tried to get online with my cellphone during short breaks between patients, but it seemed that everywhere I drove that day, I ended up in cellphone death valley. Finally, I texted Carolyn, and she texted me back: Shelli had died sometime the night before. Somehow I did manage to be moderately useful to the rest of my patients and to drive home safely.
The second last conversation I had with Shelli started with her congratulating me for using a comical euphemism in a comment on her timeline about her progressing bone mets, a post which would be seen by certain members of her family who shunned expletives. This was in late October, 2013. She applauded me for managing to avoid saying ‘fuck,’ even though she knew that’s what I wanted to say, and which I did say in a private message, along with pledging to work on my “Expelliarmus Cancer” spell. She wrote back, “Expelliarmus Cancer! LOL! Capital idea! I giggled out loud! Thank you for you treasured support. Thank you for being cognizant of when present company would really make dropping the f-bomb uncomfortable.”
Our final conversation occurred in the last days of December, 2013, when her bone pain was becoming unendurable, and the treatment wasn’t much better. “Not sure what I’m doing here,” she said, referring to her hospitalization, “other than that I couldn’t walk and kept winding up on the floor.”
“Wish I were there to help you up. xoxo,” I typed back.
“I wish you could fix everything. xoxo,” she said.
“Me, too,” I said.
[February 13, 2016] Yesterday, as it happens, I read a Facebook post written by another woman with metastatic breast cancer, disgusted after she was told by a breast surgeon that, “Well, I may step off a curb and get hit by a bus…” In my comment, I left the link to Shelli’s hit-by-a-bus post. As of this moment, her link was liked by seven other women. It doesn’t fix everything, but it helps. And I think Shelli would be pleased.