On Tuesday, I’ll reach the twenty-first anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. You don’t forget that day–no matter how many years it’s been. The doctor told me those most-feared words, “I think it’s cancer” at around one- thirty, during my lunch hour when I’d had my mammogram. Later, I was diagnosed with the Triple-Negative type and learned that the next eight months would be filled with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation which was the standard treatment in 2000.
I know that I’m lucky to be looking back at those twenty-one years– able to relive memories of time with family and friends, our sons graduating from high school and college, the births of two grandsons. Along the way, I’ve met women who’ve shared their cancer stories and bonds have forged between us through our common experience. One of those women, Julia from London, was a friend I met through the online breast cancer community. Unlike my cancer that was treated and didn’t return, hers was Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) that had spread to other areas of her body. MBC is not curable but is treatable, focusing on slowing the progression and relieving pain and other symptoms.
Julia and I became Facebook friends and she would post about her upcoming rounds of treatment and the impact it had on her energy. She was talented–an author, speaker, film maker, and artist. Her tagline on her website, and her mantra was, “Taking Life as it Comes.” You could see that in her FB posts that showed her art some days, and others, a picture of the treatment center where she’d spend a few days. She was realistic about the enormity of what she was dealing with, but yet she was also thankful and always aware of the beauty around her. She was a great photographer and had some stunning pictures of charming English villages.
Julia subscribed to my blog and often made comments that were supportive. We’d message back and forth and it seemed like we’d be good friends if we lived close by. In 2017 when my husband and I went to Europe, we were going to spend a few days in London. I mentioned that in a blog post and Julia sent me a message–asking if I’d like to meet for tea. I was delighted– going to tea with a real Brit! I imagined an afternoon of rich conversation, finally meeting her in person. Later, I wrote a post, “Tea at Two” and this was the first paragraph.
Tea at Two. That’s what we’d agreed on, my new online friend and me, fellow breast cancer survivors from either side of the pond. We’d have tea near my hotel at Hyde Park in London. I was excited to meet her in person and to have a real British teatime. I envisioned a table covered in a linen cloth and a floral teapot and cups. She’d have to advise me on which tea to choose– since I’m naturally a coffee connoisseur. I assumed they’d serve scones– hopefully ones with berries.Tea at Two
But that Tea Time didn’t happen; my husband hurt his leg and Julia hurt her foot; I was so disappointed.
When I published my memoir in April of 2019, Julia was very enthusiastic and sent word that she’d ordered a paperback copy from Amazon. Later, when I asked folks to post pictures of themselves reading my book, Julia had a friend take her picture reading He Heard My Voice by the river Thames. I was thrilled with that photo.
Back in the winter, I looked at my author page on Amazon and discovered that Julia had written a review– which was glowing and the only one I have from a European reader. She hadn’t been posting as much on FB due to her low energy and increasing hours in treatment. I sent her a message to thank her and she responded back– in her usual positive and supportive way.
In late spring, I realized that I hadn’t seen a FB post from Julia in a while and I started to worry. I went to her page and scrolled through and found the post I feared. A friend had an entry to say that Julia had passed away. There were many tributes that followed and all gave witness to the bright spirit that was Julia. She had been remarkably engaged in life, in her passionate pursuits, throughout those years of dealing with Metastatic Breast Cancer.
I remember back to when I went for my appointment with my oncologist, Dr. Graham at that most important five-year mark. I’d been told that with my subtype of cancer, if we got to that point, it would be much less likely to return. While I had been engaged in life– raising my sons who were in high school, working as a school nurse, writing, I knew I’d been looking over my shoulder to see if the cancer was going to return. I kept my hair short after it grew back following the chemotherapy. In retrospect, I believe I did that because I couldn’t face letting it grow back to my pre-cancer shoulder length and having it to fall out again if the cancer returned; easier if it was short.
After Dr. Graham looked at my labs and mammogram, completed the physical exam, he turned to me and took off his glasses.
“You’re the good news I’ve had today,” he said. “In all my years of treating breast cancer, I’ve never had your subtype to return after five years.”
He gave me a high-five and I let out a breath I’d been holding for five years.
Now, I think about Julia and all the years she dealt with cancer. In between treatment and days of feeling too weak and tired to leave her home– she lived a rich life filled with creativity and passion; I think she lived her best life, the best life she could.
From what I knew of my online friend from across the pond, she would say to us to go ahead, let out that held breath and Live Your Best Life.
In Honor and Loving Memory of Julia Barnickle