67: Heartbreak and Compassion

67: Heartbreak and Compassion

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Heartbreak and Compassion

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

~Dalai Lama

Lori is my dearest friend in the entire world. We became close years ago when we both received our cancer diagnoses, Lori with ovarian cancer and I with thyroid and uterine cancer. We have tried to live each day with hope for the future.

During the past three years, Lori has had two major surgeries and three long regimes of chemotherapy. She lost her hair with the first chemo and developed agonizing mouth sores during the later chemo regimes.

In December of 2007, Lori chose to stop chemo. Though tests showed no sign of cancer, she began to feel increasingly dizzy. Walking became a chore. She continued to lose control over her hands and legs in the following months, and I began my campaign to convince her to travel with me to the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, my home away from home for my own cancer treatment.

In May 2008, Lori and I found ourselves on the road to Arizona in my car, our suitcases and her wheelchair stuffed in tightly. Scottsdale is hot in May, hotter yet in June, but during our first week there I pushed Lori up the winding road from our hotel to the Mayo each morning and back again in the late afternoon. I took Lori each day to the appointments and tests that had been scheduled by the three doctors who were managing her case—an expert in internal medicine, an oncologist, and a surgeon.

Within days we were on a first-name basis with the other patients in the waiting rooms, who, like us, talked quietly or read books and magazines while waiting for their names to be called for their appointments. We were all fearful to some degree about what the future held for us and yet we asked after each other and shared words of encouragement.

Joe was seventy-one years old. His wife Dorothy was sixty-nine, and had been recently diagnosed with kidney cancer. Dorothy was frail and Joe looked after her every need. They held hands as they sat in the waiting rooms, she in a wheelchair and he as close as he could move his chair. It was obvious that they adored each other and would be lost without each other.

Stan was elderly, perhaps in his seventies. His wife had died years earlier and he was alone. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer weeks earlier at home. He had come to Mayo for help. Though he was alone, he was amongst friends as we all asked about his progress.

Mary was recovering from a hip replacement. Her husband walked by her side everywhere she went. Mary needed to use a walker while she was recovering from surgery. She was also blind, with a seeing-eye dog. The dog was confused by the walker, but he still attempted to guide Mary through the hospital during the day and through the hotel in the evening where they stayed down the hall from us.

Chad was fifty-nine. He was going through radiation and chemotherapy for prostate cancer. He was alone and he did not mention family. You would never know that he was sick by looking at him. He was so darn handsome and he was always smiling. He had the kind of smile that spread across his entire face, including his eyes.

We spent that first weekend in Scottsdale at the mall. That’s where we found the wigs. We bought matching wigs and wore them back to the hotel. Our Mayo friends who were staying at the hotel laughed so hard.

By the second week of our stay at Mayo the summer heat was oppressive. We turned to the shuttle van drivers at the hotel for help in getting us to and from the hospital. Walking had become a chore. The hotel van came complete with a wheelchair loader in the back, so Lori could be rolled on and lifted into the van with little effort.

In that second week, following days of blood tests, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs and examinations, we were finally given Lori’s diagnosis of paraneoplastic syndrome. Normally our body activates cancer-fighting antibodies or white cells, known as T-cells, to combat cancer. With this syndrome, instead of attacking only the cancer cells, the body also attacks similar proteins throughout the body, including those within the brain. Lori’s immune system was destroying her brain.

Paraneoplastic syndrome is so rare that Lori and I sat together with the oncologist as he called around the world searching for any case where the syndrome had been successfully treated. The diagnosis was grim. Lori cried. I cried.

We were quiet on the ride back to the hotel that afternoon. I am certain that the van driver knew that we had received some very bad news as he watched us in the rear view mirror, our eyes red and our faces tearstained. Lori and I remained in Scottsdale for one more week, as the doctors worked to develop a possible treatment plan for a rare disease with no successful treatment identified to date. The doctors were kind and patient and they seemed to want to desperately help Lori.

Our fellow patients, who we had come to know so well in the waiting rooms, took Lori under their wings, offering to help us in any way possible. They were battling cancer of the liver, bone, breast, brain, pancreas, ovaries, prostrate, and a whole host of other terminal illnesses, and yet they all shared their concern and kindness with two women a long way from home.

Lori and I returned home last July, where she began the treatment that Mayo had set up with the local oncologists. Her weight dropped forty-five pounds and in the ensuing months she lost most of her motor skills, including her ability to read, write, and walk. I continued to encourage Lori to fight to live, but we both knew that the odds were against her.

Ironically, not long after we returned from Mayo, it became apparent that I too was losing my battle with cancer. I am at peace with that. Cancer is not able to kill our friendship, a friendship that quite possibly might not have developed had cancer not brought us together. Cancer is not what defines who we are and we will not allow it to conquer our spirit.

During these past months, as Lori and I came to terms with our health and future, we have been blessed with the kindness and compassion of family, friends, and strangers. Thank you.

~Kathrin Fleming

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