Breast awareness month is the perfect time to remember that women with breast cancer need more than research and pink ribbons. They need people. In a time of crisis, it helps to reach out to others, especially to someone who has been there. Which is partly why support groups exist. I had no support group during cancer. But I had Judy.
We met during my early years in Los Angeles, and she was the only person I knew well who had breast cancer. Even though Judy was 12 years past her own diagnosis, I felt comforted by just talking to another mother who had lived through the nightmare that was tormenting every second of my life.
After my mastectomy, Judy left her own home in Palm Springs and came home with me. She helped with everything from my bandages to fielding phone calls from people I didn't want to talk to. Which was pretty much everyone. Everyone except Judy. Because she was there. And because she understood.
Not every friend can---or will---drop everything in her own life to come into yours when you need it. Judy did this not just once, but several times. She would come up and stay with my kids whenever I needed to go someplace else for treatment. She gave them not only love, but hope---because Judy had survived, they believed Mommy would survive, too.
I wish Judy lived nearby so we could have done the things we enjoy together---healing activities, of course, like shopping and laughing. I could have used more of both. I had the least support at the time in my life when I needed the most.
Just as I was starting chemo, both of my kids were starting new schools, and I didn't know any of the parents. Usually I love meeting new people. But not then. I was losing my hair, and I thought I was losing my life. Although during this time, V was an exceptional husband, he was a poor substitute for a girlfriend.
Before I got cancer, V and I had gone out to dinner once with a couple he knew. Carol, the wife, happened to work at the school where Daniel was starting first grade. One morning during the first week, after I dropped off Daniel, I peeked into her office. I wasn't even sure she'd remember me.
She did. At least she said she did. Back when we met a few weeks earlier, I had been a different person. A person with more hair and more smiles. Now I was depressed and desperate.
"I don't know anyone here and I have breast cancer and I just started chemo and pretty soon I'll be wearing a wig and I'm really lonely. Will you be my friend?"
Carol came around from her desk and gave me a hug. "Of course I'll be your friend. Not only will I be your friend, but you can meet my friend Joanie and she'll be your friend, too."
And that afternoon, when I came to pick up Daniel after school, Carol was waiting to meet me and to introduce me to Joanie. It turned out that Joanie's 8th grade son had been randomly assigned to be Daniel's big brother at school. They are still friends. And so are we.
Carol was the first friend I made thanks to breast cancer. Our friendship deepened in a way we couldn't have imagined when she was diagnosed herself a few years after me. My initial prognosis was worse than Carol's; but cancer is capricious and often throws a curve. My cancer never returned while Carol is battling stage IV metastatic cancer, and starting yet another round of chemo. Which she is handling the same way she has faced everything else---with class and courage.
Neither of us signed up for this, but we did sign up together for the Creative Healing retreat organized by my friend Shoosh, which is where Carol and I are right now. We're both eager to expand our creativity through art, music and yoga. And being around other survivors offers something equally important: connecting with others. My "breast friends" played a central role in helping me heal from cancer---because those connections are what life is all about.