On Breast Cancer and Dying and Other Brutal Truths

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My beautiful friend Jill died from breast cancer eight years ago, leaving behind her husband, two small girls, and a devoted step daughter. Jill ate well, breastfed her babies (one was still breastfeeding when she was diagnosed), did all the “right things” and was diagnosed early. These things were not enough for her.

Based on the type of cancer she had, the doctors at diagnosis said her chance for survival to 5 years was around 5%. With those odds in mind, she made a mindful decision: Skip the surgery-chemo-radiation route, and instead spend her last good months on the beach in Hawaii with her beloved daughters and the husband she would leave behind.

She got a lot of flak for that, for not following the doctor’s prescription, for not “fighting.”

I’m saddened to think that women like Jill often feel alienated by the happy-happy-joy-joy celebrations, the talk of “ta-tas” and “early detection!” and “wear pink!” that runs rampant during October. The article I linked has a point: Is our focus on being upbeat and optimistic obscuring the hard reality that cancer is, seriously, really really bad news? Is it possible that we use the upbeat images of proud survivors to hide from the fact that some of us will die, 40,000 of us this year to be blunt, from this disease?

I can’t help but think about the implications for other parts of life too. We spend so much of our time trying to “prevent” accidents and “treat” illness that we forget that sometimes really sucky things happen, and there’s no freakin thing we can do about it. Life can be brutal.

When we ignore that truth, we may shield ourselves from its brutality temporarily. But at some point we’re going to be slapped in the face with it and then what? If we have not talked about the possibility, the very real reality, of death, of leaving family behind, of orphaning our children, of separation and loss and grief… then what will we do when we are faced with it?

While Jill was dying, before they moved to Hawaii, I sometimes sat with her daughter Laurel during Jill’s doctor appointments. I remember Laurel asking me to play make-believe with her, and repeatedly these games kept ending up with her mother dying. I kept trying to make them end well, to make her mother okay, but Laurel kept insisting on going back to that place. I was trying to do her a favor by reassuring her that things could end well, that they WOULD end well.

Looking back, I realize I was trying to shield her from reality, while she was trying in her child-wise way to do what she needed to do: Accept the brutal truth and figure out, through play, what happens next. What does it mean. What is it. To face it. To learn what to do when the worst thing we can imagine happens.

Perhaps the biggest reason I tried to protect Laurel from the truth is that I didn’t believe it myself. I did not believe Jill would die. I did not believe it until I got the call from Meredith that it had happened. Even then I had a secret theory that it was all a put-on, that one day I would runĀ into her somewhere and she would laughingly explain that it was just a big joke, sorry to have bothered anyone. Crazy, I know, though I suppose a psychologist would describe it as a natural part of the grieving process: Denial.

The point is, I did her a disservice. By failing to face the reality, I did not provide her the support I could have otherwise. I was not fully and PRESENTly there for her.

I’m not saying that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a bad thing. Or that pink is a bad color. What I’m saying is that perhaps we will do well to avoid sugar-coating the issue, and instead to face it head on: Cancer blows. People die. Young mothers die. This is serious stuff. And we can’t fix it, we can’t stop it, at least not yet.

So what is there for the moms, the aunts, the grandmothers, the daughters, who are dying? What is there for their families? In all the time that we are spending buying pink bracelets and racing for the cure, are we also letting a friend cry on our shoulders, sending soup to the woman down the street who is going through radiation? Are we letting the children affected by this disease begin grieving and are we helping them to understand what will happen for them next?

Or are we too eager to reassure everyone that it will all be okay to stop and realize, that for some people, it will not. It just will not.


Update: I posted this originally on Facebook, where I am connected again with the beautiful young lady little Laurel has become. And here is what she wrote in response.

“Jill Butterworth was my mother she was strong she was brave she fought cancer with love and peace she came to terms with the fact she must leave her daughters, Me and my little sister and our dad but she gave us something even though she left this earth she left behind her love, her strength and her dreams I will never forget her…..I cant she is me she lives through us the ones she meant something to……the ones she touched.”

And then:

“she was the strongest person I will ever meet”

This is Laurel. Beautiful Laurel who looks so much like her mother and in whose soul Jill lives on.

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So here is the thing. Sometimes it is not okay. That is true. And also: When we have the courage of little 4-year-old Laurel to face that truth then, well then, in a way, it IS okay. It really is.

And THAT is why we must not hide behind pink and ribbons and the faces of survivors. Because only when we face the other side, death and loss and grief, can we reach this powerful deeper truth. The one that sometimes we need a 4-year-old to teach us.

3 thoughts on “On Breast Cancer and Dying and Other Brutal Truths”

  1. Thank you for speaking the plain truth. I lost a friend this year to breast cancer – she left young children in the hands of family and friends to be cared for. It bites.

    1. That is so hard, Patricia. My thoughts go out to them. None of us have ever gotten over losing Jill. Her daughters were fortunate that they still have their dad, and that he remarried a woman who keeps the memory of their mother alive for them. We were all fortunate to know her. Miss her still.

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