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The Scars That Bind – A Different Type of Family

The definition of family can be different for all of us, but for some, family ties are forged from sharing the struggles of a disease that leaves scars beyond the physical.

The rain is falling in heavy sheets today. The winds are angry and the trees are swaying violently. I am sitting in my family room, comforted by my dogs lying next to me, the sounds of my daughters’ laughing, the smell of bolognese sauce cooking on the stove. Yet my heart is heavy and mother nature seems to be sympathizing with me.  Another woman is losing her battle with this disease. Her body is ravaged, she can no longer fight.

I don’t know Joyce well.  We are not close friends. We see each other once a year, when my family goes to the pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins and take fall photos.  What started as a greeting of a friendly hello and a warm smile upon entering the little brown house grew over the years to hugs, and eventually, me bringing her my “famous” pumpkin cake. 

Then in 2016, I entered the little brown house to Joyce enveloping me in a warm hug. Her eyes were smiling but she felt frail. She told me she had breast cancer and had just finished radiation. She was doing well but felt weak and exhausted.  It had hit her hard. 

Ironically, I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy ten days before seeing her. I was just mere weeks away from starting a year of chemo and chemo related therapies. The pumpkin patch visit was to be our last photo shoot prior to me losing my hair.  We fell into each other’s arms crying and grieving for what was happening to both of us, yet giving each other strength that we would both get through it. We would meet again next year and we would be triumphant!

My family went back the following year and Joyce was doing well, as I was.  We both felt we were in a good place and had beat the beast. In 2018 we once again walked in to the little brown house and Joyce greeted me with a hug and all the love and warmth she radiated.  She said she had been waiting for me to walk through the door all season, and that if I had not, she planned on hunting me down. She then explained the cancer was back. She was feeling positive, however, because her treatment plan was working. Once again, we cried.

Yesterday,  I set out with my husband and three daughters to make our annual trip to the pumpkin patch, and the first thing I did was run into the little brown house. There was no Joyce to greet me. I was told by a nice lady that Joyce was very sick and being “ravaged” by the disease. She is not expected to hold on much longer. 

I fought back the tears that immediately began to form. My oldest daughter, now 17, watching me intently.  I put on a happy face during our pumpkin selection and photos, and once home in the safety of my room, I cried.

Today, I feel like I am losing a member of my family, not someone I saw once a year for a few brief moments. Maybe that is because Joyce is a part of my family, my breast cancer family.  This unbreakable circle of women who have been touched by this disease, who have to face the awful truth about what it does to us, and live with the fear that someday it will return and have the final say. We are a large family, scattered throughout the country – throughout the world. But no matter the geographical distance that separates us, we are there for each other. We cheer each other on, we encourage each other, and with social media so front and center, we actually talk with each other. We know things about each other that we cannot share with anyone else. Sometimes not even spouses or partners.

As I sit here writing this, my husband and daughters think I am catching up on work. They have no idea how hard the news of Joyce has hit me. Just like they don’t know how many other family members I have lost in the last few years. Women whose names they will never know, but I will never forget.  

Unless you have had this disease you cannot know what it takes away and what it keeps on giving long after treatment is over.  But we “survivors” understand all too well. And thus, we are bound together by our physical, mental and emotional scars. 

I always dreamed of having a big family, but I never imagined it like this.

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