Having a Village: The Importance of Friends when Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer
Paulo Coelho once said, "Friendship isn't a big thing - it's a million little things''. I have found this to be glaringly true as I navigate life with metastatic breast cancer. There are friends who come in various forms, supporting me and enriching my life in their own ways. All coming together, many of whom as strangers, to be "my village".
Different types of friendship
You never really know the impact you have had on someone until you have cancer. I have heard from more old friends, some of whom I have not spoken to in thirty years! One old friend from elementary school bought my family and I dinner from a thousand miles away. A friend from middle school ordered me some chemo supplies I needed. Another I have not seen since my high school days even offered to donate money to me in lieu of party favors at her wedding! I have had friends from school, my first jobs, from college, all reach out to me. "I am here for you!". "You are not alone." "Let me know what you need." One said, "I remember in seventh grade, no one talked to me. But you did. You always asked me, so, how was your weekend?. I never forgot that." To hear those things, to hear from so many amazing people who helped shape me during those formative years, it was one of the greatest things that could have ever happened to me. I am so fortunate to have each and every one of them in my life - both then and now.
Fair weather friends
It's a funny thing because there are so many people whose children's birthday parties I've attended or barbecues I have brought the homemade macaroni salad to, that just completely fell off the radar when I was diagnosed. It began with offers of help and support, and then they fell quieter and quieter as I slowly drowned. They were busy! Work. Soccer games. Dance recitals. Their presence in my life dwindled down to barely-existent, and I admit some fault in that myself. However, I had a good excuse; I was trying to survive. I don't harbor any ill-will toward them, but I learned that they are great friends for parties and barbecues, and not anything of real subsistence. Living with metastatic breast cancer means life will never be "fair weather" for me again; I will always be braving a storm of one kind or another. They are simply not the sort of friends who are equipped for that. And that's okay.
Oh, work friends! They really came to my rescue. I was struggling, trying to keep up with the demands of teaching, paying my bills, and juggling child care with my grueling chemotherapy schedule. And they did not sit idly by and watch me suffer. They rolled up their sleeves and helped, however, they could' offering to babysit or drive me to biopsies. They helped me organize my classroom, or made hundreds of photocopies for me, collected money in cards, and surprised me with flowers on my desk after a sepsis stint in the hospital. One time, the whole eighth-grade staff even wheeled in a trolly of groceries! I have never felt so supported in my life as I did by my work friends when I taught middle school. My work friends helped me keep my head above the water in more ways than one. I will be forever grateful to them.
Some of my deepest, most meaningful relationships are with people whom I have never met in real life. One friend I met in a divorce group; lived across the country. On paper, we had little in common aside from hellish divorces, but we became fast friends, supporting each other day and night. Once, I expressed my disappointment in spending my first Christmas Eve without my children as they would be their dad. I couldn't fly home, and all of my local friends would be with their own families. He said, "We are spending Christmas Eve together!"'. And so, we did. We video chatted and had the best time ever! I have a few special friends like this, who have crossed my path in the most unexpected of ways and yet turned out to be there for me and never let me feel alone. One should never underestimate the strength and loyalty found in online friendships.
Now, these are enormously powerful friendships. Regardless of stage, age, gender, or type, we have all endured a certain torment others cannot quite understand. And with that brings a unique connection and an instant bond in many respects. This is especially true in metastatic breast cancer circles. We celebrate each other's victories and support each other's losses. We welcome the newly diagnosed and help quell their fears, while also mourning together and honoring our dead. When even those closest to us cannot understand how we are feeling or why we are feeling that way, we can turn to each other, day or night. In a lot of ways, we are a family. We are a jumble of people from all over the world, brought together under the worst possible conditions, and yet manage to eke out this wonderfully supportive, loving, and strong community. If that isn't a family, I don't know what is.
Saving the best for last-the quintessential best friends! I am very fortunate to have a few very special who are like brothers and sisters to me, but I will discuss the oldest one. Her name is Leighanne, and she lives in our home state of New York. When I was in the hospital recovering from my mastectomy, she slept over with me. She saw under my bandages before I could work up the courage to. She took care of my children, my baby, as I recovered. When I was diagnosed as stage IV and flew to Memorial Sloan Kettering, she came to the appointment and arranged for a girl's trip to San Francisco. When I discuss my plans for after I pass away, Leighanne is in charge of it; my memorial services, cremation, where my ashes will be scattered. She is truly my sister.
As Paulo Coelho once said, "Friendship isn't a big thing - it's a million little things". As I live, struggle, and thrive with metastatic breast cancer, I have seen this illustrated by so many extraordinary people in my life, in so many incredible ways. Whether it's a dinner delivery, trolley of groceries, hospital sleepovers, or everything in between, "my village" has supported me and helped me through the most challenging times of my life. It has never been one big thing, it has and always will be a million little things.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Friday, October 29, 2021, Danielle Thurston passed away. We know that Danielle’s voice and perspective continue to reach so many. She will be deeply missed.
Internal radiation therapy is the most common type of radiation used to treat breast cancer.