“I’m sorry you have to go through this. I’m here for you.”
I’m sorry and I’m here.
I have heard these two phrases many times over the course of the last eight years, but one person uttered these words with the profound empathy of someone who had truly walked in my shoes.
My friend Jessica was diagnosed with breast cancer approximately four months before I received my own diagnosis of Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma. Despite living in different parts of the country (me in Colorado and she in Washington DC), Jessica keenly understood my struggle and the unique challenges faced by a young wife and mother with cancer. She experienced the humiliation of losing her hair. She saw the sympathetic eyes of strangers skip over her face and land on her head scarf. She knew the internal drive to be the best mother she could possibly be, because she didn’t know how long she would be afforded the opportunity. And yet, despite her own fatigue and worry, she phoned me before every one of my chemotherapy treatments to say, “I’m sorry you have to go through this. I’m here for you.”
As seven months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy drew to a close, I eagerly sought the empathetic words of my friend. Having recently completed her own treatment regimen, Jessica understood my seemingly irrational desire to want treatment to continue. She understood that chemotherapy, while physically taxing and emotionally draining, was a security blanket - it offered protection from my body’s own immune system, something I could no longer trust to keep me cancer-free. As the fear of an uncertain future overtook me, Jessica responded, “I’m sorry you have to go through this. I’m here for you.”
News of Jessica’s relapse came first. Within months, my own relapse was diagnosed. Through it all, the phone calls and words of encouragement never ceased. We both faced additional and riskier treatment. Jessica underwent radiation therapy to the brain while I endured a new regimen of high-dose chemotherapy and additional radiation.
As our bodies began to recover from the onslaught of toxic cancer treatment, I flew to Washington DC to spend a weekend with my friend. Fall was in the air as we purchased pumpkins, walked through wooded trails, and cheered at her son’s soccer game. I returned to Colorado with a deep gratitude for our friendship and an even deeper respect for Jessica’s strength.
My second relapse was diagnosed within six months. As I came to terms with the stark reality of what the next phase of cancer treatment entailed, Jessica’s reality was far worse. She had entered hospice care. Upon learning of Jessica’s prognosis, I immediately picked up the phone and left her a voice message. “I’m sorry you have to go through this. I’m here for you.”
Jessica passed away during a time in which my oncologist was searching for someone who would be willing to donate his or her stem cells to me in a last ditch effort to cure my cancer. I mourned for the friend I lost and I prayed that somewhere, a stranger would understand the significance of my need and provide a lifesaving gift.
Eventually, word came that a donor match was found. I was told that a man, somewhere in the world, had volunteered his stem cells. His actions spoke the words I so desperately needed to hear. “I’m sorry you have to go through this. I’m here for you.”
Approximately five months after Jessica’s death, I received the cells of this unknown man. The weeks leading up to the procedure were uncertain and scary. Doctors warned of the potential dangers resulting from transplanting the cells of another person into my body. One doctor even told me that I was more likely to die from the transplant than reach a cure. Most of the professionals offered very little optimism about the likelihood of my survival.
Despite the odds and as a result of the transplant, I have been cancer-free for the last five years. I miss Jessica’s presence in my life, but have used the experience of our friendship to reach out to other parents with a cancer diagnosis; to say the words Jessica used to say to me. “I’m sorry you have to go through this. I’m here for you.”
This past summer, my husband, Randy, and ten year-old son, Eric, and I traveled to Germany to meet the man who saved my life. My stem cell donor and his family were gracious and loving, and it was clear the transplant process meant as much to them as it did to me and my family. We celebrated this very unique relationship and forged a lasting friendship.
I can’t help but think that Jessica was with me during my time in Germany - her empathetic nature celebrating the connection shared by two strangers, forever linked by science. And I bet she was saying, “I’m glad you are going through this. I’m here with you.”
Nora Earnest, -Friend, Wife, Mother, Lymphoma Survivor