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Breast Cancer Reminds Us to Live

At this very moment, sitting on my comfortable bed of white linens, looking out the window, daydreaming, pausing to silently lament how I missed my cycling class this morning, my sister is having both of her breasts removed, reconstructed and if all goes well, cleared completely of breast cancer.

Lori is the oldest in our family of six kids, a surrogate mother to me and the second of my four sisters to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years ago, another sister, Kim, found a small lump and went through a similar surgery and recovery. We joke that Kim’s perky new boobies, and the ones Lori will get today, are worth the anxiety and the pain.

Laughing about having cancer is really the only thing we can do to ease the suffering.

RELATED: New Year, New Breast Cancer Diagnosis

It seems now that I am in my 40s, breast cancer is everywhere. In addition to my own family, last year three friends were diagnosed. What originally began as breast cancer recently took the life of my friend and colleague, Gunilla, age 42, mother of two boys. Last month, I lost Melinda, 43, also mom of two, to a highly aggressive version of this damn disease called Triple Negative.

I met Melinda in college. She was the pledge master of my sorority’s class of new recruits and brought me into the fold of dozens of amazing, smart and motivated women. We laughed and drank a lot during those years, but it was after college when she made the biggest impact on my life. After a post-grad internship in London, I found myself back in my childhood home, eating chips on my parents’ couch. I was sending out resumés printed on pink paper by the dozens. (This was the ‘90s, internet wasn’t really at “thing” yet, but apparently resumés typed on pink paper were.) I had interviews in New York, but nothing was really coming from it. Not to mention I was broke.

Then one day I got a letter—yes, a real handwritten letter from Melinda (see mid-‘90s explanation above). She was living in San Francisco. She wrote me in her direct, but funny, no-bullshit manner.

“Get your ass out here, now.”

She had a job lined up for me and a couch I could sleep on for as long as I needed. When I arrived, she embraced me like the sister she swore to be when I pledged our house years earlier. She introduced me to a city I had never laid eyes on before, to her enormous group of friends, and even to her neighbors—lifelong residents of the Tenderloin who had already fallen in love with this spirited, white girl from Connecticut. It was hard to resist Melinda’s spell.

As tough as I was back then, Melinda was always tougher. So when I got a call last year telling me Melinda had breast cancer, I acknowledged it, knew she would fight, she would recover and her diagnosis would be a mere wrinkle in her life’s happy story.

If there is a lesson to learn from the passing of these beautiful women, it is to remind us all to live. Live!

Melinda and I eventually left San Francisco, got married, had kids. We hadn’t seen each in years, but last summer, a few months into her battle, I had the chance to visit her during a trip to the East Coast, just a couple of hours away from where my parents lived. It’s so hard for me to admit this, but I didn’t go. Maybe I was afraid to see her and have to confront the fact she was truly sick. Maybe I was afraid I would have to say goodbye. I do know, I was strangely anxious I would cry in front of her children or that my visit would be an unnecessary burden. I told myself I would have another chance to be with her when she was well, because surely a light as bright a Melinda’s could never burn out. But she didn’t get her second chance and neither did I.

Not going to her was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

When Melinda died last month, I wasn’t prepared. I was out of the country and alone. I gasped audibly when I read the news, surrounded by strangers, and tried in vain to find a familiar face, someone to hang on to while my knees buckled beneath me. I cried a lot, and then I drank shitty beer, something we so often enjoyed doing together.

I didn’t think this would be happening at this stage of my life, when my friends and I still have young children. If our bodies are strong enough to give birth, surely they are strong enough to fight cancer, right?

I’ve realized that breast cancer is like a tornado, taking down one only to skip over another. We just don’t know where the storm is going to materialize and who will be spared.

Today, remembering the courageous cancer fights of my friends, I gather strength for those battling and surviving today, like my sister Kim and, today, Lori. I wake up every day and try to remember that today’s hours will pass, and I won’t get another chance like today to feel the sun, to move my healthy legs the three miles I don’t want to run or to tickle my boys bellies until they threaten to pee their pants.

If there is a lesson to learn from the passing of these beautiful women, it is to remind us all to live. Live! To take the time to see our friends, our sisters, those we love, and tell them what they mean to us for no particular reason.

RELATED: I Wasn't Supposed to Get Breast Cancer

Honor today those who have made an impact on your life like Lori, Kim, Melinda and Gunilla have had on mine. They deserve to hear it from your lips, to know it from your heart, while you can.

It's in that love we have for old dear friends, sisters, mothers and wives where we will find the strength to fight on.

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Image by Amiee White Beazley

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