Our friend Jackie died last week at the age of 42 from breast cancer. I met Jackie the same night I met Kelly, the love of my life. After a Thai dinner, Kelly convinced me to join her and Jackie for ice cream, which I would soon learn was her favorite thing. Jackie’s warm friendly demeanor instantly put me at ease in a room full of strangers. Her close friendship with Kelly, born of countless racquetball games and movie nights and ice cream runs meant that Jackie would be a big part of my life as well and I couldn’t have been happier. She was a vibrant, upbeat woman who seemed to gather friends and admirers around her everywhere she went. Her memorial service was an uplifting testimony to her spirit and an emotionally wrenching time for her wide circle of family and friends to say goodbye.
While we waited for the service to begin, Kelly’s good friend Diane gave Kelly a gorgeous bracelet sold by the Friends of Mel Foundation to help raise money for cancer research. The multicolored beads and simple design make it the kind of jewelry you can wear with anything and I instantly coveted it. Our friend Michelle commented, “oh that’s the new breast cancer bracelet!” I learned that the Friends of Mel Foundation was started by friends of a woman who lost her cancer battle, and has since grown into a nationally known effort which has raised over $2 million for cancer research. Jackie’s own friends too have started a foundation in her memory, the Jackie Williamson Sisters of Hope, with the admirable goal of raising funds to help women, and in particular members of the lesbian community, who are facing the financial burden of dealing with critical or terminal illnesses. Yet another of Jackie’s closest friends has been training for her third 60-mile walk for the Susan G. Komen foundation to defeat breast cancer. Audrey started walking three years ago when Jackie was diagnosed, this year she sadly will be walking in her memory.
As we rode home from the cemetery I started thinking about all these lives cut short and all the ‘warriors’ left behind to fight the battle. My own losses to cancer are numerous and have been well chronicled on these pages before: my father to melanoma, my sister to multiple myeloma, my mother (and her mother) to breast cancer, my friend Dani to breast cancer, my friend Kim to a rare cancer of the bile duct, and now Jackie to breast cancer. In the early days of my time as a cancer warrior I too would cycle and walk, wear the ribbons, and the t-shirts. I too was like all those groups of friends running, riding or walking for someone whose face smiles bravely from their identical t-shirts. Sometimes they do it to “fight the fight” with them, and all too often to “keep their memory alive.” All these friends of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people living quietly remarkable lives all taken by variations on the same disease. These efforts provide a means to cope, to celebrate a life, to mourn a loss and to feel as though we have the power to make a difference, to be a warrior. When I started my own journey as one of these cancer warriors I had only my dad’s name to write on my “in memory of” ribbon…then I added Dani, my sister, my mom, Kim, and now Jackie. And while I haven’t tried to get my gargantuan body on a bike in a while I have thought of training to join Audrey or my friend Margaret in a marathon walk next year, because I know in my heart this battle can’t go on without me in the midst of it. And each year more and more warriors join this fight, walking, running, making bracelets, selling t-shirts, even skydiving like my fearless friend Audrey, all in an effort to try to stop the relentless march of this insidious disease. For every friend of Mel, of Jackie, of Dani, there are a thousand more each year who join the fight, wear the ribbons, sell the bracelets, plant “gardens of hope” and release balloons and sing songs in memory of their friends and raise sneakers and bike tires to honor the survivors. And you know what? I’m tired. We’re all tired. You can see it in the shell-shocked faces of those who have just experienced their first loss and in the hardened set faces of people like me who know this latest loss will be far from the last. This needs to stop. This battle should not have to be fought with dances and raffles and bake sales. This generation of warriors is ready to put down our weapons. We want to know our children won’t be fighting it a generation later. I want to know that Liza won’t be walking with her friends someday with my name on a ribbon or a t-shirt, making the same macabre jokes I make about coming from ‘the cancer family.” It’s time. It’s past time. Find the cures. End it now.