Happy Chemotherapy Day!" Nancy said to B.K. when she picked her up this morning. Nancy is on the phone, reporting this to me.
"You think that was okay to say?" she asks.
"I think you have to trust your instincts," I tell her. "I think you're doing great."
She's calling from the parking lot of the hospital, taking a quick cell phone break on this, B.K.'s first day of chemo. She tells me B.K. is doing great. She asks me how I'm doing. I tell her great, but now I have to call Beth and Wendy and the others, to tell them that B.K. is doing great.
"Okay, great," Nancy says.
This, apparently, is how we respond in a crisis. We rally around and give each other verbal high-fives. Yup. Thumbs up! Let's go, Babes!
We are, none of us, doing great, least of all B.K. They found the tumor in her left breast. They said it was tiny. In that way, they said, she was lucky. "They said it was 7 millimeters," B.K. told us. "Or maybe 0.7 centimeters? Is that the same thing?"
Beth rolled up her sleeves. "I'm going with you to your doctor," she told B.K. Beth is exactly the person you want with you grilling a doctor, or bailing you out of prison, for that matter. Beth is our most no-nonsense friend. She can be a tiger. This used to bother B.K., our most reserved friend, a lot. A few years ago, B.K. and Beth parted ways for a time, because, in part, of B.K.'s sense that, at Girls Nights Out, Beth's interrogations were too invasive ("Did you kiss him? Why didn't you kiss him?"). And now here was Beth, offering her most notoriously bothersome traits to do the job B.K. couldn't begin to do herself.
Wendy, a nurse, drafted a list of 15 specific questions Beth should ask the surgeon. Chris went with Beth to give moral support while she asked the questions. B.K., they would later report, sank down in her chair, said nothing, and turned into a scared little girl. She stayed that way for weeks.
I took charge of saying, "It's okay to be a scared little girl."
The surgeon told Beth he doubted B.K. would need radiation or chemo. Beth, Chris and B.K. all went out to lunch to celebrate this news.
The surgery was on a Tuesday, and then B.K. sat by the phone waiting to hear the pathology report.
"I'm recommending radiation and chemotherapy," the oncologist said.
"But the surgeon said I wouldn't need it!" B.K. bravely said, about the only time she spoke up. "He said the tumor was tiny."
"Yeah, well, it's an aggressive form of cancer," the oncologist said. Just like that. Blunt. Cranky. A little nasty.
B.K. hit bottom.
Friends of friends, all cancer survivors, came forward with the name of a nicer oncologist. The second opinion was the same as the first, but at least the delivery was softer. B.K. said she would do the radiation, but she was making no promises about chemo.
B.K.'s brother, with whom she had never shared much personal information, came forward and escorted her to the daily radiation treatments.
Everyone told B.K. to go for the chemo, even Laverne, her hairdresser, who took her out to shop for wigs. They picked out a brown one, and Laverne styled it and then chopped off all of B.K.'s hair so she wouldn't have to witness it shedding.
Saul, B.K.'s boss, surprised her one Friday with a gift from the staff: a shiny new electric guitar, a dream from long ago.
Nancy made an offer that she hoped wasn't intrusive. Her own mother had died of breast cancer but hadn't told her she was sick until it was too late. "I didn't get to participate," Nancy told B.K. "It would mean a lot to me if I could take you to your chemo."
B.K. came to my house that night, sat and stared. She was having trouble figuring out how one person could contain such a mix of emotions: fear, sorrow, gratitude, joy. "It feels so good to be able to help Nancy," she said.
Nancy is exactly the person you want with you while you get chemotherapy. She's a person who, a couple of years ago, turned her own hernia operation into a vacation, thanks to the lovely view afforded by her hospital window, food that wasn't half-bad, and the chance to get some guilt-free time off work.
And now she is on the phone, reporting in from the hospital parking lot. "I brought in a huge stack of magazines and also grapes and a cheese plate," she says. She tells me B.K. is meeting some of the nicest people. Together the patients are complaining about how, as it turns out, so much of chemotherapy is sitting around waiting for chemotherapy to begin. "Everyone here is so great," Nancy says.
"Well, Happy Chemotherapy Day," I say to her. This is as good as it gets.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is email@example.com.