Cancer, as everyone knows, is a beast.
Melissa Anne Dabas battled that monster — triple negative breast cancer, an onerous form of the disease. She had a double mastectomy and punishing rounds of chemo that smacked her with every side effect.
In February, the 42-year-old Virginia mother of two got the thrilling all-clear.
Melissa, a first-rank Lady Gaga Little Monster super-fan who'd go to every show, knew how she wanted to celebrate: at Lady Gaga's D.C. show on Nov. 19.
Not just two seats — a massive party.
She bought 26 tickets right then and there. Eighteen of them box seats, the rest at the 100-level. Her two kids, her husband, the nurses, doctors, everyone who helped her fight cancer would be there.
"When I saw the credit card bill," said her husband, Sanjay "Jay" Dabas, "I couldn't believe it. $10,000? That was for the tickets? JUST the tickets?"
Even for a doctor, that was a huge bill to swallow.
But this woman — who fought for children as a court-appointed advocate, who worked as a PTA volunteer and a fundraiser for disabled children, who survived a difficult and abusive childhood, who always held the household together while her husband treated patients — she deserved that kind of party, Jay conceded.
He regrets — deeply regrets — his first reaction to that bill.
"To this day, I am so angry at myself at how I reacted," he said. "These mistakes you make in life. I'm guilt-ridden, it's relentless."
If you know cancer, you know where this story is going.
Because cancer is also relentless. And merciless.
Not long after she started planning the party, Melissa started having back pain.
What mom doesn't have back pain? Lugging sports equipment, boxes of books, twisting under beds to find the lost lovey.
Jay happened to be in radiology, looking at one of his patient's films, the day after his wife had back scans taken.
"Hey, can I see Melissa's scan?" he asked. "As the scan came up, I had tears coming out of my eyes. I could tell. Instantly. From the CT scan I could see, even as an anesthesiologist, that the cancer came back and was extremely aggressive. I broke down."
He went home and had to deliver the worst possible news to his wife.
"In my mind, I knew. I knew what this meant," he said.
His wife, the one always there, quietly keeping family life going, was the strong one.
"She's the one who said, 'We've got to do this. We've got to get back up. We've got to do this for our kids,' " Jay said.
She didn't want to know her prognosis. She didn't want a timeline, a bucket list, a making-memories finale. She wanted to keep working as head of the PTA, to run the fundraisers, go to soccer practice, piano lessons, to clean the house.
"I looked at her one day. I asked her, 'Why are you doing all this?' " he said.
He knew her prognosis, he knew the clock was ticking.
And she told him, "Jay, you know and I know that this cancer will probably cause me to die. But please, I beg of you, do not take who I am away from me. I refuse to let you do that, and I refuse to let the cancer do that. Do not take away who I am — ever."
Eventually, when she was on oxygen in August and could hardly walk five feet without being wiped out, she gave in, and they interviewed a nanny. The first time anyone else would take care of her children.
Two days later, she had a massive stroke.
On Sept. 2, listening to Lady Gaga, she died.
In the following days, her grieving husband wrestled with what next? How could he honor her with more than a funeral?
The Indian community in Winchester is holding a huge celebration in her honor next month. She was a star in that world.
"The only Jewish woman there, and she was at the center of everything," Jay said.
It started with getting their sons, Avinash, 11, and Sajan, 8, involved in the cultural celebrations. Eventually, Melissa was helping to head their Bollywood-level Diwali festivities. She did the music, the costumes, she taught all the kids — and even some of the adults — all the traditional dances.
But he wanted to do more, like Melissa.
"Think like Melissa. See the world through her eyes," he kept telling himself.
Then he remembered what she kept talking about after every chemo treatment.
"I'd get home from work, and she'd tell me all these stories," Jay said. "Not about herself. But how these people were having a hard time buying food. Or who's going to pay the rent? These people were all having a difficult time covering the nonmedical expenses of cancer."
"Cancer doesn't discriminate. It doesn't only affect people who are able to pay," he said. "And this really bothered her. And it was something she never got to do anything about."
So this is what he came up with. He's going to keep the Lady Gaga party alive, and some friends and family will go. But he's raffling off 10 of the primo box seats. And the money will go to help those families Melissa spent her final days with — the folks whose lives are devastated by both the toll and the cost of cancer.
And what else will he do?
Slow down. Spend more time with the boys. Melissa was the children's sun, he said. "I was, like, Pluto," he acknowledged.
"And now, I have to be their sun, too." Just like she was.
The raffle will establish the Melissa Anne Dabas Charitable Trust, which will fund the Winchester Medical Center Foundation's Angel Fund that helps families deal with nonmedical expenses. Tickets may be purchased online at valleyhealthlink.com/raffle or by calling 540-536-4736.
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