First, I learned that cancer is not stealth. It arrives with a bang, not a whimper. With the power of eight words, thrown like a punch, delivered through Facebook to my hotel room across the country where I sat, alone, planning for a business meeting: “Sorry to say that the biopsy was positive.”
I’ve walked 180 miles for breast cancer, all the while meeting uncountable survivors and friends and family members of cancer patients and victims. My sister is a survivor; our favorite aunt a victim. But none of that prepared me for this Facebook message from my lifelong best friend, a woman just like me—same age, same interests, also with a loving husband and two daughters—and also so unlike me. It’s not saying too much to say she is the better version of me.
This summer unfolded like no summer before. Instead of planning our joint family trip to the Cape, we talked about whether she should use a local surgeon or travel 60 miles to a big city hospital. Rather than sharing stories about our daughters’ first years in college, she schooled me on BRCA testing. In Julys past, I had reflected on our different taste in beach reading; now I wondered how I would have handled explaining to my daughters about our genetic misfortune. And while I had always thought our 40-year friendship was close, I learned true intimacy while washing her hair and learning to empty her post-surgery drains.
What’s amazing to me, really, is how unchanged my friend is by all of this. I was shaken to the core by her diagnosis and repeatedly shaken awake by the details of her journey, but she somehow remained the same calm, strong, and grounded woman I have always known. We recently sat on lawn chairs in her backyard enjoying the warm sun of an early fall day, talking about our children and our jobs and about life, and it felt, quite amazingly, like it could have been any day in any year.
In the end—and of course, it is not the end; another surgery is around the corner, another family member has been identified as BRCA positive—I learned that cancer is stealth after all. It removed breast tissue only to reveal fathoms of grace; it plunged our friendship into a deep lake of ice water and brought us back to the surface, smiling into the sun.
Vivian Harris is a qualitative research consultant by trade; a wife and mother by fortune; and a lover of words, dogs, open fields, and big cities.