My Day at Chemo

So, a quick back story to a whole lot of history. I met my friend Leea at work, a department store. We had mutual friends, but didn’t become close until my computer illiteracy took over.  I needed help making a sale sign. We started talking that day 10 years ago, and haven’t shut up since.

Leea was diagnosed with breast cancer just after I gave birth to my second daughter. Being only a few years older than myself, this was shocking, to say the least. I feel like the news didn’t even sink in before Leea, the eternal optimist, was assuring everyone, that this was going to be OK. I mean, she hit cancer, and chemo, and the whole deal, head on. We have had some very candid conversations, and she never lost faith. Even on the worst of days she stayed positive.

It had been difficult to get together throughout her treatments because I live far away, and with a compromised immune system, I’m not the ideal friend. Let’s face it, airplane travel, combined with climate change, and two germ-ball kids, I’m not the lady you want to hang out with, if you can’t get sick. Living thousands of miles away, I didn’t get to see my friend until she was deep into the chemo process. She looked no different to me, just bald and beautiful.

After six months of doing chemotherapy, my beautiful bald friend was pronounced cancer free. She had gone through hell with her head held high, and kicked cancer’s ass.  Unfortunately, Leea and her family only got one year of living cancer free. Leea is once again living with cancer. The cancer metastasized by getting into her bloodstream to her lung. The initial prognosis was not awesome. Luckily, my girl is a fighter, and did not take this laying down. Leea is now doing an experimental treatment at Johns Hopkins. (A treatment that is going to change lives). The treatment is called immunotherapy. She is also still getting chemotherapy, because immunotherapy isn’t yet proven to work.

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses substances made by the body or in a laboratory to improve or restore immune system function.

Over my spring trip home, I volunteered to do what any good friend would. I wanted to take Leea to chemo. She met me with some resistance. Leea is one of those ” people pleaser ” types. ” It’s a long day”, ” I don’t want to take you away from your family”, blah, blah. Always thinking of other people. Selfishly, I just wanted to hang out with her for a whole day, so I wore her down. We have one of those very frank friendships, so I assumed if she really didn’t want me to go, she would just say NO. Not that I would have taken no for an answer.

So, I’m not a delicate flower. I’ve seen some shit in my life, and I’m not the type to shy away from an uncomfortable situation. Well, chemo got to me. In my head, anyways. The thought of sitting with someone I love, while they have poison pumped into their veins freaked me out. What if I breakdown? What if she gets sick? What if I can’t handle a room full of people in this highly emotional treatment, and I lose my shit? What if I’m not the support system she needs? I’ve never been in this position before. How do I act? What do I say?  I woke with nerves at 4 am on chemo day.

Did I have everything packed? Where my girls all set for a day without me? What did the traffic look like? After a couple cups of coffee, my nerves settled and my instincts kicked in. I make jokes in uncomfortable situations, it’s just a thing I do. I text Leea asking if she was ready for “spa day”? Luckily, my sweet friend enjoys my twisted humor.

My nerves were completely settled two minutes into our drive. Leea insisted I didn’t need my GPS, because she knew the way. Then we made two wrong turns before even leaving her development. We were talking away, and my trusty navigator didn’t tell me which way to go. We laughed and my anxiety was just gone.

Arriving at Johns Hopkins, Leea gave me the run through. We go here, do this, then here, do this, then wait. I was supposed to be there helping her, but she was basically helping me. This was a section of Johns Hopkins I’d never seen before. All experimental, all research. Leea explained her new experimental treatment, immunotherapy, to me in a way I’d never heard before. She spoke about how this new experimental treatment could potentially change her life expectancy. Leea had excitement in her voice when she spoke of this treatment, and its potential to change the lives of cancer patients. She wanted to continue this experiment for as long as she could. Even if not for her, but the others that followed.

She talked about how people hate “chemo”, but you can’t. The treatments, no matter how treacherous they may be, are prolonging and saving lives. In that moment, my perspective was changed forever. Here in front of me, sits a woman who has been given a relatively short life sentence. How did she have more hope and faith than the perfectly healthy people walking among us? Her mind and body are fighting a war every single day, and yet she is giving strength to everyone around her. I didn’t walk out of that hospital, as the same person, who walked in.

Not only was I moved by Leea, but everyone I came into contact with that day. The doctors, the nurses, the lady who made my Frappuccino at the coffee bar.  They all had a sense of life and kindness. Almost as though they knew they were making a huge difference. The nurses that administered the actual chemo treatment were a couple of the funniest ladies I ever met. While they laughed and joked with their patients, I thought of how taxing their job must be. To my surprise, these patients, who had been given this terrible disease, they laughed and joked back.

There was no time for sadness here. There is only time for hope. These people are working on a cure. There is no looking back. There were no wrong words to say, or wrong way to act.  So, this is what I learned from my day at chemo.

  1. Chemotherapy is not a dirty word. It is a general term used for various drugs and treatments fighting CANCER.
  2. There is another world that most of us never see. An entire world of doctors, nurses, scientist, patients, etc. They are all working tirelessly, relentlessly, to improve the lives of people affected by cancer. These people are making sacrifices daily, so that one day, the world may be free of cancer.
  3. Don’t ever avoid something that is uncomfortable. The best way to face the unknown is head on.
  4. When you surrounded yourself with people stronger than you, you get stronger. Leea has showed me strength and grace in the face of adversity time and time again. She has a vibe of positivity that engulfs the people around her. If you meet someone like that, never let them go.

My point to all this is, that in every darkness there is a light. You can look for it, or you can draw the curtains. You can live a life, or you can live a legacy, you decide. I could never give Leea back what she has given to me, but I like to think I was what she needed in a friend. People find their inspirations all over the place. I found Leea 10 years ago, in the basement of a department store. Maybe it was God, or fate, or good luck. Whatever it was, I’ll be forever grateful.



A Slightly Different Sarah



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