The Oxford English Dictionary says that a friend is 'a person that you know well and like'. Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014 I'd like to challenge that definition...my friends are so much more.
When you get your diagnosis your world shifts on its axis. Nothing is the same as it was before. Everything is different. You are not the same person you once were.
Now don't get me wrong - those I classed as my friends before cancer are definitely still my friends now...the support offered to me and my family during the last year has come from old and new friends. It often surprised me who withdrew a little and who stepped up to the mark to make that difference. Maybe it shouldn't have done. I understand that being around me may have made people realise their own mortality, and that this is often something people shy away from. I don't blame anyone for trying to preserve their own sense of being. I can't say that I would have done the same were the roles reversed, but I love all my friends for their differences and if everyone acted the same all the time the world would be a much duller place. There is great beauty in our differences and I would never expect anyone to be someone they weren't on my behalf.
During the period between my diagnosis and the beginning of my treatment I refused to Google...I was pretty au fait with all the medical jargon having trained as a nurse and midwife (although I think my poor husband was undergoing a mammoth learning curve!). I trusted that my doctors knew what they were doing and would plan what was best for me. However, a lady on a Facebook group pointed me towards the Younger Breast Cancer Network UK. It was a couple of weeks before I felt ready to sign up...but I'm oh so glad I did. I'm sure my Macmillan breast care nurses had their lives made easier as well as I learnt most of what I know from lovely ladies on YBCN!
Sitting in the breast clinic I felt so very young...everyone else there seemed at least 20 years older than me. Here (online), all the ladies were under 45...I'd found my new friends who would sustain me through the next year. There were ladies who had just been diagnosed, ladies undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy or surgery, and ladies who had finished all their treatment and were just there to offer advice and support.
There was a group of ladies who all had similar time frames to me, and there was always someone online 24 hours a day 7 days a week. And we told it how it was...you know – all the things the medical professionals don't tell you. All the things that make you sit at home thinking 'is it just me?' And when you're not able to get out and about because you've just had surgery or are recovering from your latest chemo session, these ladies are all there. Nothing was out of bounds and there was lots of tears and lots of laughter.
There was one lady in particular who I chatted to quite a lot. She was diagnosed a couple of days after me and we had all our treatments within a couple of days of each other. We were 'chemo twins'. Once we'd finished our active treatment we celebrated together, and finally met in person to share a few drinks and hugs in September this year at a Breast Cancer Care Younger Women Together event.
Our bodies were still recovering from all the harsh treatments, but we could start planning the future. In fact, my friend wrote a poem about that very subject on this blog.
Over the last few weeks my friend was told the cancer had spread to her lungs. It was now incurable, but with drugs she may be able to extend her life. She was taken into hospital a couple of weeks ago. I sent her regular messages and sometimes she replied, sometimes she didn't...but I just wanted her to know I was thinking of her.
Last week she was moved to a hospice. Now these places aren't always doom and gloom. They are a much more homely place to be stuck in than a hospital, and their medical teams are second to none. They help people to live with illnesses – they are not just places to go into and never come out.
I made a box up and posted it to her. It was not much, but it was just full of things that I hoped would make her smile and know that she was being thought about. I don't know if she ever got to see my box. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things – she knew she was loved.
My last message from her was Tuesday. She knew that her time was limited. I was so saddened on Sunday when I received a message saying that she had passed away on Saturday evening. Everything seemed to happen so very fast. In fact, I drunk a lot of wine and had a bit of a meltdown...something I'd not really done since my diagnosis. Life is so unfair and cancer is so cruel. Two more children left without a wonderful Mother.
She is not the first friend I have lost but she was my closest. Love you lady - you will be in my heart always.
My first instinct was to tell all my friends (we now have our own little group away from YBCN where we talk about everything and anything) – they were her friends too. To know that even in this I wasn't alone helped immensely.
You know when you say or do something and then stop and think that it's just you – nobody else can possibly feel like this / do this? Well this bunch of ladies just get it. They've all been through what I've been through. Yes everyone has very different experiences and we're all individuals. But I have told them things that nobody else knows...and vice versa. When we meet up in person – which I have done already with some of them, and am so looking forward to doing in a couple of weeks when we have a mass meet up to celebrate Christmas and remember our friends no longer here – there is none of the awkwardness of meeting new people.
Because we know each other. We know so much about each other.
I'm sure that I would never had crossed paths with many of these amazing ladies had I not had cancer. We are all so very different, but also all the same. So in a way I am grateful to cancer for forcing me down a different path to that which I had planned. Now my plans have changed. I plan on living life to the full, spending time with my family and making many new memories. I plan on doing it with the lovely friends we have all lost along the way at the forefront of my mind...it is wrong to waste your life when there are those who are no longer here and tried so very hard to stay.
Chatting to my new friends is a daily occurrence. Distance is irrelevant online. And when we discuss things there is no need for explanations. I am my new me. I don't need to pretend to be someone else, or pretend to be the person I was before cancer. I'm the same person I was but very, very different. I love all my 'new' friends and having them at the end of my fingertips is invaluable. I don't feel different because I've had cancer. There is none of the sympathetic head tilts or gentle questioning or avoidance of subjects that often come from friends after a cancer diagnosis. I think a lot of it is down to not wanting to upset the person. But with these ladies we have no subject that can't be discussed. All of us has stood face to face with our own mortality and I really wouldn't wish that on anyone of my 'other' friends. I hope against hope that none of them ever have to cross the line I have crossed.
We laugh a lot. I've learnt lots of new (rude!) words. We cry sometimes. We love deeply always. With these ladies I am just me. I am home. I cannot imagine being without them. I love them fiercely.
I have found my tribe.