Like it’s circular, cellular shape, Cancer surrounds your life once you’ve been diagnosed. Radiating inward, oddly enough, the circle envelops, contains you, putting boundaries on your timeline of existence, but it also creates other circles outside of your own, through the people who will share your experience. The goal, for all of us, is to keep those circles close, but not too close. For some, they accept as many radiating circles as they can into their lives, the clarity, definitions and emotional depth of each weakening as it fades into the distance.
I’ve always made an attempt to limit my circles. I don’t want that much confinement, that weighted emotional potential in my life. I have my own circle I can’t avoid and want to keep as distant and blurred as possible, and then also the circles of my friends whose struggles I will also take as my own. I’m tentative to step within anymore, because I know how quickly they close in on us.
I’ve inadvertently found myself confined by the circles of support groups, absorbing stories of death and depression without end, but just as quickly stepped out. With cancer, I know the circles I’ve created will, at some point, close in on me and I don’t want to surround myself with that emotional confinement anymore than I must.
For some time, the circles have been so far away. My own, fortunately, resides far off in the distance. It will come into focus a bit more when I undergo my next surgery in October, but even then, it’s boundaries are blurred and weak. Where it once rung my throat and threatened to choke the life from me, it’s now as familiar as a coastal border, somewhere far off in the distance.
But the few other circles are not so far away, and one I hoped would disappear completely came back, quickly, forcefully, and now my friend is going to die.
I met Chelsea when we both found ourselves working at a local vegan cafe, built from the neglected shambles of the last cafe, by just a handful of us given the opportunity to try it out. She was a student dietician, dating a fellow vegan, straight edge, distance running friend of mine and we all got along from the get go. Admittedly, it’s pretty much impossible to not be friends with Chelsea. She’s all huge smiles, loud laughs, and an overflowing energy that becomes instantly infectious. Our friendship grew from the cafe, around veganism, and then through our discussions about running nutrition and the obsessive personalities that both I and her boyfriend, Alan, harbor.
What I didn’t find out until later, is that Chelsea had lived through cancer just a couple years before we met. It’s not something you go throwing around in conversation all the time, but it became one more connection between us after my own diagnosis. Chelsea and Alan have both been there for me through my benefits, surgeries, and recovery, but it was out of genuine friendship, not pity. They stepped into my circle willingly, but I don’t think any of us imagined her own circle coming back to overlap mine.
Until it did.
Anyone will tell you, when cancer comes back, it’s infinitely more frightening than the first time. The stories and statistics all line up, often with tragic endings. Chelsea’s cancer did come back, sort of. Her cancer didn’t grow back…a new one formed, get this, as a reaction to the treatment to eradicate her first. It’s an all too common biological response to cancer treatment. Kill one and facilitate another. That’s what happened to Chelsea.
It started with a pain in her shoulder, that turned into all sorts of tests, into an official diagnosis, troubled by careful treatments that couldn’t be too aggressive as she suffered heart damage from the treatments for her first. She went through various drugs, signed up for clinical trials, and then the symptoms got worse. The scans were not encouraging. And before we could even consider another option, cancer spiraled out of control, taking over her body. One week I was talking to Alan about the next treatment option and days later he was texting me to say she was now entering hospice care. Just like that. The circle had begun choking.
I went for a run in the hot, humid air this morning. A 12 miler with 5 miles getting progressively faster, but my legs felt as weighted by the emotions dragging down my psyche. I pushed through two miles before everything gave up. And yet, I couldn’t stop running. I passed the 5 mile mark, then my turn around at 6, and kept running. I’m not sure why I kept going. Part of me thinks I wanted to run the sadness of my dying friend out of my head. Part of me felt obligated to suffer, in my own way, just a little bit, along side her. Another part needed to keep going…because I can…because she can’t. It was something of a celebration, living a little bit more for her.
Laura and I visited her in the hospital later in the day, and I wish I could say we laughed hard, but she’s having trouble doing anything right now. She’s out of her head on pain meds and surely doesn’t remember we even visited. It’s hard seeing your friend, barely recognizable from the swelling of steroids, in and out of consciousness. It was like seeing my sister again in her last days. They look a great deal alike actually. I can say, however, we did make her laugh, as much as it pained her. I bought her two pairs of socks to replace the hospital socks they give their patients. One pair said, “Fuck this shit.” The other said, “I don’t care. I’m high.” I knew she would like them. They would be the socks I would want if I was in her position. I only wish she was capable of laughing with all the energy she used to give.
I don’t regret surrounding myself within her circle. Even if I had the choice to step out of it, I wouldn’t. She and Alan stepped into mine after all. I only wish we could have pushed it off into the distance again, both of ours, if only for a little bit longer.
With tears falling down her face she told us she was terminal, that she’s so sad because there was so much more she wanted to do. We tried to remind her how much great stuff she has already done, that she did more in her time than most even attempt in their lives. But really, there is never the right thing to say in these situations, no matter how true the sentiment.
I assured her, however, that I ran my miles for her today and that I would continue to run more. As a matter of fact, my benefit run this summer is wholly because of her, and now I owe her every single mile.
I wish Chelsea didn’t have a circle of cancer ringing her life, but I’m glad I was there to step within it and share that space with her. We’re going to miss you Chelsea.
When I heard Chelsea was diagnosed again, I needed to help her. She and Alan have been there for me, and as a friend, I wanted to do anything I could to help her manage treatment. While planning the ultra run fundraiser on her behalf, I also linked up with Family Reach in order to spread the benefit into other circles. Without any prompting of my own, Family Reach contacted Chelsea and her social worker to facilitate a grant that helped pay for months of rent and medication that would have been financially crippling otherwise. I am forever indebted to Family Reach for helping alleviate this portion of Chelsea’s burden and I know her family is too. It is with great sadness that Chelsea won’t be here to see me finish this run organized on her behalf, but I’m proud to say the money raised will go to help so many others who find themselves in a situation similar to hers, giving both financial and emotional relief.
Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. I am deeply grateful.