Through the thin walls, I thought I could hear our doctor say, “I’m sorry, Lizzie. Your counts are too low to be treated today.” It was the last day of my chemo treatment. I was overcome with relief. But my thoughts kept drifting to my friend in the next room.
When I ran into her husband in the hallway, he told me that despite her counts being low, they were still able to administer part of the treatment. She was done! Huge sigh of relief.
Ten months later, I heard about her death while riding down the FDR in an Uber on my way to a follow-up appointment. A voicemail from an unknown number. I didn’t think twice before playing it on speaker. But when I heard the last name of the caller, I knew. Her sister had found the unreturned texts on Lizzie’s phone.
And this is why you don’t make friends at chemo, I thought to myself.
I didn’t expect to like her. Unlike the rest of us in the young mothers’ support group, she wasn’t trying to mask her bald patches with jazzy hair bands or covering her bloated body in sweats that resembled pajamas. She looked good, put together.
At first, I figured that with her triple negative diagnosis and two small children, she must have been one of the many Ashkenazi Jewish women who carried the same BRCA gene that landed me in the chemo room at 33. The fact that she was wearing a wig didn’t help to dispel this assumption. But I should have known. She was way too put together to be Jewish. Turns out she was just a WASP with bad luck.
Holding back tears, she said, “At first, I never let my children see me without my wig, but it was impossible to wear it all the time. My four-year-old daughter was very upset that mommy lost her hair. She kept begging me to make it come back. I told her that mommy was upset too, but it wasn’t coming back for a while. Then we sat together and cried.”
Her raw emotional honesty pierced through her flawless appearance. I liked this girl.
Outside on the steps of Mt. Sinai, we bonded over the stress of our finance jobs and wondered if they contributed to our current situation. We joked about our boob jobs. Showed off pictures of our toddlers - we each had one boy and one girl. We commiserated over our grief that cancer had likely shattered our dreams of having a third.
Unlike many of the friendships that I formed in my 30s, there was no posturing. There was no point. We both had been viciously ripped from the prime of our lives and forced to face our own mortality prematurely.
It wasn’t until later that I realized perhaps Lizzie wasn’t like this with everyone. Maybe she could be vulnerable with me in a way that she wasn’t permitted to be with most people in her life.
Lizzie and I did not see each other as much after chemo. We were in different places. I live in New Jersey and she was sheltering from the pandemic on Long Island. She was still tied up with further treatments and I was attempting to figure out how to navigate my life after cancer.
But we still texted about all the things we couldn’t share with anyone else. Our desire to have our bodies come out of chemo-induced menopause and have our periods return. The irony of discovering that when our periods did return that they were just as annoying and painful as they had been before chemo. Our inability to relate to our pre-cancer friends with their vapid concerns about their hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. And, conversely, endless conversations about the regrowth of our hair, eyelashes and eyebrows.
And then there were the more serious conversations. At my first follow-up, our oncologist wanted to do an ultrasound of some hard tissue on my left breast. I texted Lizzie from the waiting room, shaking in my hospital gown. I knew she’d understand.
When it all turned out okay, she was the first person I wanted to tell. A minute later, I wrote, “Oops...I told you before Josh [my husband].” After thanking her for being there, I promised that I would be “her person” one day, if she needed one. She assured me that she would take me up on the offer.
That opportunity came the next month when she texted me from a cancer center in New Jersey where she was participating in a clinical trial.
“I’m freaking out.” she wrote. “The doctors want to do a full work-up. I was having a bit of trouble breathing and they found some fluid in my lungs. I feel like you would understand how I feel right now.”
I did not understand how she felt because her “scare” turned out to be an aggressive metastasis to her lungs.
In the weeks that followed, I was wracked with anxiety. I am ashamed to admit it was mostly about myself. She was me. I was her. A young mother with two small children.
Since the day I was diagnosed, I had unsuccessfully tried to push this exact sequence out of my mind. But now, as I watched it play out in real life, I wasn't the main character - Lizzie was. Repeatedly, she lamented, ‘why me’. Repeatedly, I answered it could have been any of us.
What I meant was it could have been me.
I began obsessively scanning my body for any new lumps or pains. I wanted to focus on my friend, but I was too lost in the conversation in my head.
And then she stopped answering my texts. I hoped she was just being flaky. But as her texts became less and less frequent, I began to wish she was in a deep bout of depression. It was better than what I feared to be true.
As Lizzie’s sister told me the horrific details of Lizzie’s last days, I told her about the past year. It became clear that I knew Lizzie in a different way than those who knew her before cancer. I knew her as a cancer patient - something, it seems, she was quite private about.
I told her sister that the last year of Lizzie’s life wasn’t all bad. That there is a unique form of freedom that comes from having done everything right, but ending up in the chemo ward at 33 anyways.
Her sister and I laughed, as I told her how Lizzie was always stirring up trouble with our oncologist by negotiating to accelerate her treatment schedule so she could spend Thanksgiving with her family.
It wasn’t long before I said to our doctor, “Another patient told me that you could be treated on a Monday and a Friday. Is this possible?”.
She responded, “You were talking to Lizzie again, weren’t you?”.
Lizzie pushed, even when her cancer became incurable. In one of our last text exchanges, Lizzie wrote, “I just want to see my kids finish high school. Not even college. I’ll wear a wig for the f***ing rest of my life if I have to.” At the time I thought it was a throwaway comment, the type of “would you rather…” or “it could be worse…” that is common amongst cancer patients. I now realize that she was pushing. She never stopped pushing.
Her sister said that she called because she wanted me to know that I meant a lot to Lizzie. She told me that Lizzie talked about me all the time. I thought of our many text conversations, ending in “I love you, friend” then three heart emojis. In recent weeks, the heart emojis were followed by lines of prayer hand emojis. Facing mortality allows for a friendship where nothing is left unsaid.
I sat in the exam room, waiting for our breast surgeon, as tears rolled down my cheeks. Everything reminded me of her - the radiology wing where I texted her when I had my scare, the steps outside the hospital where we first met.
I thought about Lizzie lying in a bed upstairs on the oncology floor, dying, with her mom and sister standing vigil by her bedside.
I pictured her kids tentatively entering the doorway of her room. I knew what they looked like from the smiling photos she had posted of them on social media. Their little bodies shuffled slowly, as they scoured the room for their mom. Their huddled bodies made them look even smaller, but they were trying to be brave. Then they saw their mom. She burst out in the warmest grin. They returned it immediately.
I stopped. I didn’t want to think about that.
I thought we were the same, but maybe we were on diverging paths all along and I just failed to see it. Perhaps both were true. Either way it didn’t matter. It was so comforting to have a friend just like me.
I thought about how there was nowhere I’d rather be at that moment than in this depressing cancer ward - surrounded by the doctors that we relied on, who had become both superheroes and surrogate mothers to us. I was in the place where we met. It was the right place to say good-bye.
Jenny Leon was treated for breast cancer in 2019. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two toddlers. Her work has been featured in HuffPost Canada, Newsday, Motherwell, Kveller and Scary Mommy. For a link to her work, see here: https://linktr.ee/jennyrosenyc