75: One of Us Has Breast Cancer

75: One of Us Has Breast Cancer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

One of Us Has Breast Cancer

Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.

~Virginia Woolf

I come from the South and grew up in a tight-knit circle of friends, so when something happens to one of us, it happens to us all. Louise, the larger than life, funny member of the group, now lives in Sun Valley, Idaho. Louise has a sense of humor that literally reduces her to tears and it tends to be contagious. She’s also the organizer and plan maker who got it in her head one day to have Tama and me fly out to her home in the mountains for an extended weekend. Tama and I immediately fell in line, our husbands were alerted, our dates were set, and our plane tickets were secured. Tama and I were on our way, she from her home in Memphis and I from mine in L.A. Eight days before our scheduled departure, my phone rang. I looked at the display illuminating Louise’s name and thought, “No doubt some sort of instruction is coming,” but it turned out that wasn’t the case. When I picked up the phone, Louise was crying.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Tama has breast cancer,” Louise said, without preamble.

“What?” I asked again, only this time, with an entirely different inflection. This time, I meant two things: Did I hear you correctly? How in the world could this possibly be true?

I’ll say this about all of us reared in the South: we know how to do. We know how to step up, we know the perfect gesture for everything no matter what you’re talking about, and we know how to meet all of life’s emergencies. We pretty much slide into an automated code of proper behavior because that’s what our Southern mothers passed down to us.

“What should we do?” I asked Louise, because it was the first thing that came to mind.

“I think we should call off y’all coming out here,” Louise said.

“Alright, is that what Tama wants to do?” I asked.

“Tama doesn’t know what she wants to do. Her family is freaking out,” Louise reported.

“I’m not going to call her today — when did she find out?”

“Yesterday,” Louise interjected. “They called with her mammogram results, said they found a mass and wanted to do a biopsy, which Tama didn’t bother to tell us, and now they’re telling her it’s cancer. Now she’s telling us.”

“I don’t even know what to say,” I exhaled.

“Call Tama tomorrow anyway,” Louise directed.

You have to understand that Tama is a woman of few words. She’s not one of those superfluous talkers; she simply contributes to a conversation with as few words as possible and leaves the floor to everybody else. She doesn’t feel the need to position herself front and center, and this is exactly why Louise and I have always deferred to her.

The next day, I called Tama.

“God, it’s always something,” Tama said.

“Seriously, is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“Yes, come over here and tell my kids I’m not dead yet,” Tama said, deflecting the gravity of the moment.

The three of us went on that way for days, back-and-forthing over the telephone, vacillating between drama and sarcasm, comparing thoughts and notes and ideas and stories of people who had gone through something similar and achieved a happy outcome until Tama’s doctors presented her with a concrete, step-by-step agenda that would begin within the month. But I still didn’t really know what to say — or do — for my friend.

Finally, one day, Louise came up with a plan. “I think y’all should still come out here,” she said. “Tama says she may as well wait out here for the inevitable.”

“Alright, let’s airlift Tama on outta there; we may as well,” I agreed.

I’ve found out that it’s the little things you do in support of a friend who has breast cancer that end up truly mattering. For four unscheduled days, we followed Tama’s lead, monitoring the understandable yet unpredictable fluidity of her emotions and finding the delicate balance between activity and restorative reprieve.

We had lunch with Louise’s friends in Sun Valley, went shopping, and took long walks on the mountain trails. When Tama teared up, we teared up. (“Y’all let me cry now because I’m not going to cry in front of my husband or my kids when I get home,” Tama said.) And when the look on her otherwise stoic face suggested she was overwhelmed, we simply retreated to Louise’s house and took a nap no matter the time of day.

We spent a lot of time talking about our intertwined childhoods, our histories and our families, yet oddly enough, we didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on what was to come for Tama in the following months. For whatever reason, Tama just wanted to be, and Louise and I had the unspoken graciousness to just be right alongside her.

It’s been a year and three months now and in that time, the harrowing, incremental progression of Tama’s breast cancer has included multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss, ongoing hives, and reconstructive surgery. As friends in support, Louise and I keep vigil by demanding blow-by-blow details, sending presents, making phone calls and hanging on every twist and turn of her progress. It appears that the worst is behind her as there is no sign of the cancer’s return. Tama’s hair has grown back beautifully and she looks and feels like a glowing million dollars. In my heart of hearts, I believe that Tama will forever be one of the fortunate breast cancer survivors. Although there were times during her travails when I questioned whether anything I could do would ever help, I have realized that it is enough just to try and it is enough just to be there.

~Claire Fullerton

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