Cancer is pretty much all downside, delivering devastating blows to the mind-body-spirit trifecta, but the far and away worst damage comes when friends die. I’ve lost people diagnosed before me, after me, those younger and older than me, people who sat with me in the treatment suite and those I never met face to face. I’ve cried, I’ve raged, I’ve shaken my first at the empty sky.
This one is different.
You can read the official story here. This is mine.
Shannon’s dad and my dad worked together at the Cincinnati Enquirer. They were close friends, Shannon and I were the same age so I heard about her through most of my childhood. We’d spent some time together as teenagers in the 1980s but our connection remained once removed – we were the daughters of good friends with big personalities.
My father died in 1992 when I was in my 20s, I met my future husband shortly after and we created a family who only knew of younger days through the stories I chose to share. There’s a freedom that comes with escaping the full weight of the past but also an unmoored feeling of belonging nowhere.
In the early 2000s, I enrolled my preschool-aged daughter in Sunday School at my parish. One day at pick-up, a smiling face came up to me and said, “Do you remember me?”
I suck at that game and always end up feeling like a chump. Almost always.
This face I knew.
Shannon had been looking for me because she’d seen my daughter weeks before and knew that girl had to be my daughter.
That’s ninja-level recognition skills.
Our oldest kids were the same age and started school together in the same first grade classroom. We got to know each other as adults and parents but our shared history felt like family to me. Like those fading roots.
The summer before our kids started second grade she called me. They’d found cancer in a Fallopian Tube. No worries, she told me. This was a speed bump. Docs gave her an 87% survival rate and she was going to have a little chemotherapy to make sure.
I knew zilcho about cancer then. But 87%, I thought. That’s a B and she says she’s going to be fine. So I believed her and by wintertime she hosted a jewelry making party to thank everyone for their support. Her hair was growing back; she was all smiles and proclaiming life was good.
I believed her.
The summer before third grade started I called her. This time I had the cancer and I wasn’t nearly as sunny. I got a 67% survival rate diagnosis. That’s an F. But she told me not to worry – those numbers include all of the old, fat, and unhealthy people too. It was one of my first laughs at cancer, but her husband had been transferred to Houston. They were going to move before I even had my first treatment.
Before they left, she came over to offer herself as proof to my children. The hair grows back, she said. Look at me, she said, I’m fine. Your mom will be fine too.
They believed her. I did too.
Things weren’t always so fine for Shannon in Houston. What they’d found in Cincinnati was actually ovarian cancer, a nasty and persistent disease. She learned she carried the pernicious BRCA mutation. The ovarian cancer returned, spread, and eventually outsmarted all conventional and clinical trial medications. She engaged hospice this January and died on Valentine’s Day, nine years after the original diagnosis.
I don’t have words to elucidate the stark facts. I know there is immeasurable pain today in her close-knit family. Her sister, her parents, her niece, her nephew, and of course her children.
But she told me before she died that she was at peace.
I believe her.
She hoped her final days would be peaceful ones too. I told her I was sure they would be.
I hope she believed me too.