October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I’ve been asked to share “my connection with cancer and how travel was meaningful” as part of an awareness campaign sponsored by Sun Chips in partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I wish I wasn’t qualified to write about traveling for cancer, because that would mean I wouldn’t have this story to share with you.
Traveling for Cancer – Dedicated to Jennifer
If I were to pick the moment in time that breast cancer first touched my life, we’d have to go back to my early childhood when my grandmother shared with me the scars of her double mastectomy. You could say that left an imprint on my brain. Thankfully, my grandmother survived to fight another day. I can only imagine now as an adult how it must’ve affected her back at a time when the idea of breast reconstruction was still a thing of science fiction. And, while I now have to tell my doctors I have breast cancer in my maternal family history, it wasn’t until this summer that the life and death reality of breast cancer really hit home.
It was March 2013 when I got an email from my Arizona State, Tri-Delta sorority sister, Karla about planning a reunion trip with a small group of our friends from college. We needed to celebrate. One of our sisters, Jennifer, had just undergone a double mastectomy in July 2012 and was pronounced “cancer free” afterward with no chemo or radiation needed. There was reconstruction surgery and lots of healing after that, but life was expected to return to normal with her husband, three young boys and the rest of her friends and family who loved her.
We decided to make Vegas our playground for our happy reunion. Emails went back and forth daily between the five of us, making plans to tear up the town. Flights were being booked and schedules synced. The date was set for lucky 7/11 when we would all converge at Las Vegas International Airport and share a taxi to the Golden Nugget on Fremont Street.
And then her email came.
We were less than three weeks away from Operation Vegas when Jennifer learned her cancer was back. It had spread to her bones, lung and liver. Aggressive treatment was being started immediately. Her prognosis? 6 – 12 months. That was incredibly hard to read. How did she go from cancer-free to 6-12 months in the space of just six months?!
She signed off her email with this…
“Of course, I am going to fight this with everything I have to prove it is wrong. Please know I love you all and cherish you with such special memories!!!!!!!! You all were such a huge part of my life and I will always be with you (so behave!).”
Immediately, our instinct was to cancel Vegas and fly to Dallas to be with Jennifer. But, better judgment kicked in and we knew we had to leave Jennifer to spend time with her family and get through her treatment.
Jennifer encouraged us to go to Vegas without her. But, she wanted daily updates while we were there. She LOVED Vegas and wanted to live the experience through us. It would give her great comfort to imagine herself anywhere else than where she was, in weekly three-hour chemo sessions followed by bouts of sickness and unbearable pain at home.
So we went.
Every day we wore pink ribbon pins and bracelets in honor of Jennifer’s fight. We took pictures of ourselves everywhere we went and texted them to her. And every day we would get Jennifer on the phone for a conference call where we filled her in on what we had done so far and where we were going next.
But, mostly, we reminisced. And laughed. And then laughed some more.
Jennifer never sought pity during those phone calls. There was little to no complaining about how she could barely breathe because of all the fluid on her lungs; or the pain from the chemo now coursing through her veins; or about what might happen next. After all, she was going to beat this!
In the meantime, Jennifer’s doctor had extended her prognosis to two years and we were now making plans to visit Jennifer in Dallas after all. We had decided on October and spread the word to more sorority sisters through Facebook. The reunion was growing.
We had one last conference call with Jennifer upon our return from Vegas. Of course, at the time, we had no idea it would be our last because exactly one week later… she was gone.
I should be writing about my return from Dallas right about now, having just seen my friend who is kicking cancer’s butt. But, instead, I’m writing for closure after having said goodbye to a strong, beautiful woman (inside and out), who was dearly loved and will be forever missed.
As a busy wife and mother who was involved in her community, loved boating, water skiing, and a good boot camp workout, Jennifer knew how to live life to the fullest. May a cure for cancer be found soon, so that other women can do the same without their lives being so tragically cut short as Jennifer’s was.
This Monday, October 21, 9 – 10pm EDT, TravelingMom.com’s weekly Twitter Party is being sponsored by Sun Chips in partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Join me and other TMOM panelists as we chat about Traveling with/for cancer and Living Life to the Fullest. There will be prizes, of course, but you’ll also get to chat with people who have been there and get tips and ideas to help you travel better.
See you Monday!