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November 27, 2012

Essay: Surviving breast cancer, and losing so many friends

WASHINGTON — My friends are dying. My wonderful, funny, kind, generous friends are dying.

Sometimes I want to scream at the unfairness of it all. But then nobody ever said life was fair. My oncology counselor, who has worked with cancer patients and their families for going on 20 years, told me that when you work in this field, the deaths come in clusters. She doesn't know why, but it just happens that way. This will be my first cluster.

Unlike her, I am not "in this field" by choice. Four years ago, at age 51, I received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Like most people would be, I was blindsided. There is no history of breast cancer in my family. There is, however, a history of other cancers on both sides of my family tree.

I lost my father to cancer when I was barely 12 years old and he was 38. The first tumor was in his throat. His mother was 50 when she succumbed to pancreatic cancer. His youngest brother was a robust 70 when lung cancer stole his life. My feisty, tough maternal grandmother was 75 when they discovered cancer in her kidneys.

Obviously I'm not stranger to death; still, I am struggling big-time here.

When you have cancer, life does an about-face. Suddenly things that seemed so important — climbing the corporate ladder, paying off your mortgage, making sure your kid gets on the best soccer team — well, they just aren't all that important anymore. People matter, quality time with those you love matters, even if — especially if — they are dying.

Take one good friend of mine. She has Stage IV breast cancer. A 38-year-old registered nurse, she is a member of the military. She has climbed the ranks faster than most because she is hardworking, dedicated and determined. The military was her life.

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