In the Trenches, Together


Nancy Hicks

Today’s guest blog is one woman’s powerful story of dealing with a double blow – a diagnosis of cancer at the same time as one of her best friends. Here Nancy Hicks tells what happened to their friendship “when cancer dive-bombed both” their lives.

In the Trenches, Together

You’d think that having a friend going through the worst thing you’ve ever faced would be a comfort. That having one of your best buds by your side as you both battle breast cancer sounds almost fun, right? Well, kind of. Not fun, exactly, because it is cancer, after all, but it is nice to have some company along the way. Having someone whose company you crave and whose opinion you value along for the ride is pretty great. It’s also really hard and really sucky, because as valuable as it is to know that she truly gets what I’m feeling, it means that she’s probably feeling it too, because she’s in the trenches herself.

Does that even make sense?

It does to me, but if you’re having trouble following along, bear with me. My friend in the trenches is staring this vicious beast in the eye, going toe-to-toe with the roughest part of the “cancer journey.” (I really hate how that phrase conjures up a nature walk or space travel or anything other than what it is, which is hell. For lack of a better phrase, I’ll continue to use “cancer journey,” but I insist on taking away some of its power by using quotation marks.)

She was diagnosed a few months after I was. The current statistic is one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, which I believe, but you sure don’t expect the one in eight to hit close to home, not once but twice. Being diagnosed in our early forties was a shock to us both, to say the least. But having each other diagnosed as well was terrible.

We met when her son and my daughter were in the same kindergarten class. They had just moved to Houston and her kids needed someone to play with and she needed someone to drink wine with. I was happy to oblige. She was the one who got me into tennis, and we joined the same team. Before cancer dive-bombed both of our houses, we enjoyed a lot of fun times on the court together.

I will never forget her telling me the news. She had been trying to tell me for a week or so, but I didn’t know that was what she needed to say. I was in a pretty bad place, having survived the bilateral mastectomy just fine, but gotten a post-surgery infection upset the balance of my carefully created new normal. I had been in and out of the hospital all summer, missed my annual girls’ trip, had put my two young kids on a plane to visit friends across the country, and had missed my son’s Little League All Star team’s trip to the state championship. It had been a long, tough summer. School was about to start again, and I was focused on getting through the last few days before the kids were at school all day and I had time to heal (at least from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.!) I was on the mend, but not there yet.

My friend had reached out to me a few times to ask if we could have lunch together, and I regretfully told her I wasn’t quite up for it but let’s plan a date soon, as soon as the kids get back in school. She persisted, which I should have recognized as odd, because she’s not a pushy girl (unlike me). She suggested we go out for coffee, or maybe a smoothie, something quick. And yet, I deferred. 

Finally, she asked if she could please just stop by for a few minutes because she wanted to talk to me about something. Uh oh. That made me nervous. I suspected something unpleasant was afoot.

And it was. She told me she was a new member of the pink ribbon club. Oh no. I was caught in a strange limbo of wanting to reassure her that it would be ok, but because she had been witness to my calamities, she would know that it’s really not ok. It’s scary and unpredictable, and even though we may do everything right, it doesn’t always turn out ok.

But then I realized that I had the chance to help her make it ok. Or as ok as we could make it. The statistics say that only 3 people in 1,000 get an infection from surgery. Since I was one of those 3, we were going to assume that she’d be safe. Since she’d seen me endure the endless and often unpleasant testing that leads up to a bilateral mastectomy, she knew that she could endure it, too. Since I was so happy with my team of doctors, she interviewed them too, and ended up using the same breast surgeon, plastic surgeon, and oncologist.

Although I was still healing, I was able to take her to some of her post-surgery doctor’s appointments. We recently had a fantastic day that started with a visit to the plastic surgeon to get her tissue expanders filled. It was a lot of fun for me because I wasn’t the one sitting on his exam table. It was also fun because I got to be his assistant. Nurse Nancy in the house! Dr S’s lovely nurse Brenda was on vacation, so Dr S told me to glove up and earn my keep. I couldn’t resist asking him if the gloves were latex-free, even though I don’t have a latex allergy. It’s not much, but it’s all part of how I drive him batty.

I’ve witnessed him bossing Brenda around plenty, and it was funny to be on the receiving end of that. We were in the midst of a heated discussion about something or other, and he started ordering me around right away.  I reminded him that it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. He loved that one. Really. My poor sweet friend asked us to stop fighting and please talk about something sweet, like puppies or Easter bunnies, since Dr S was waving a giant needle around as she lay helpless in his wake.
He told me to hold the bag of saline a certain way, so he could jam the giant needle into it and fill up the king-size syringe to then insert into her tissue expanders and fill them up, and I couldn’t resist doing it the wrong way, just to tweak him. Then I realized he was pointing the giant needle at me, coming toward the saline bag, so I decided to shape up. It’s all good fun.

After we concluded our business with Dr S, we ran a couple of errands before meeting some other friends for lunch. And by “ran a couple of errands” of course I mean shopping. We were on a mission to find her a new pair of black boots and I’m proud to say that we found not only the boots but also two other pairs of shoes. I’m a big believer in the healing power of new shoes. It’s a force unto itself. She and I know that the rest of our worlds may be a crumbly mess, but we’re gonna face it in great shoes.

We spent a lot of time laughing so hard we hurt, and more than one person stopped to look at us and probably wonder what in the world could be so funny. She’s not the sort of person who snorts when she laughs real hard, but I am, and I did it a few times. That’s how you know you’re really laughing. I’ll bet that to the outside world, we looked like two normal women: hanging out, enjoying each other’s company and relentlessly pursuing the perfect pair of black riding boots. Probably no one noticed that we both have a port bulging out from under our skin, or that we have a much different profile than we used to. I know that no one can see the scars under our shirts, and that the newly-etched worry lines on our faces could be from any number of stresses. No one knows that the landscape of our daily lives has a completely different topography now. Instead of just being filled with carpool and homework and tennis and such, it now revolves around doctor appointments, procedures, and research. When we’re out in public, running our errands and getting stuff done, we look like normal people. We get through our days, cross things off our “to do” lists, and take care of our families, just like everyone else. But we do it with a heavy burden. That’s why it was so great to spend the day together, and to ease each other’s burden, if only for an afternoon.

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