A white scarf studded with beads is wrapped around her head, hiding her not so secret, secret. Though new life is finally springing up to replace the lush strands of hair that have long fallen out, she stills prefers to keep her head covered.
She looks tired, weary and impatient. She is ready to move on, ready for the year of hell to stop and the promises of good days to begin.
She has been fighting, fighting hard for her life. Her body has taken a severe beating including her almond brown skin which is now a little darker, from the chemical cocktail that was pumped in to her veins to kill everything in its path. It made no distinction between good and bad, everything had to go.
Fortunately, she is strong and age on her side. She can beat it. That is what the doctor said with the diagnosis, Stage IV Breast Cancer.
I glance at my childhood friend who was sitting a few feet from me. We laugh, catch up on the latest events and laugh some more. I look at her chest; her familiar silhouette has changed, nothing is there but the outline of draining tubes that are hidden beneath her gown. I am careful not to let my eyes linger for too long.
Growing up, she was one of the privileged few who had all the right curves in all the right places. She was voluptuous; built like a brick house; a body shaped so perfect that married men could not even hide their desire to move just even a pinky finger down her line.
I quietly ask, to no one in particular (I dare not question God), but my thoughts rest on why her?
I think back to several months ago, when the chemo started to show the terrible effects of trying to save her life. We sat together on her cream-colored couch, like we are now, and she told me that she started losing her hair. Since it was braided in singles at the time, she asked me to cut off the ones that were falling out. It was more than an honor that she trusted me to do it; she is extremely private and a tad bit prideful.
She pulled off her scarf and handed me a pair a scissors with instructions to only
cut the ones that are barely hanging on. I stood on her right side and looked for a good place to begin, taking in the smooth patches where braids already abandoned their hold on her scalp. I started above her ear and carefully lifted each braid, some were attached by a single strand, some two and some three.
It was quiet. I concentrated on my work and she looked at TV, I am sure she was trying not to think about her latest sacrifice.
I worked my way down and toward the left side of her head. Each snip of the scissors only left short strands of hair that were likely to also desert her by morning. One by one, I laid each braid on a red towel.
When I finished, my heart sank, only half the braids remained. I asked my friend if she wanted to see the braids in the red towel, she said, “yes.”
I watched as she looked at the hair in the red towel in bitter acceptance. In my quietest voice, I then asked if she wanted to see her head. She said, “No.” Then, I asked if she wanted me to keep cutting? Inside I was pleading, I wanted her to take power over it, get it over and cut it all off!
She said, “No, I’m not ready,” then stood and quietly excused herself for a moment. I stopped asking questions.
The chemo did its job and killed the tumors that had spread to her lungs and spine, leaving only the shrunken tumor in her breast. She told the surgeon to take both breast, she had enough of cancer.
We continue to chat and reminisce about our younger days which seems to makes us feel better. We talk about men and how they get on our nerves and about the new perky boobies that she can have once she has her reconstruction surgery. I look at my dear friend, how she has suffered, I want to do something but what? I look at her again, how cancer and chemo has transformed her into a survivor. I want to say something but do not want to say anything stupid. So, I follow her lead.
My thoughts drift to my aunt, whose couch I sat on fourteen years ago, in the same awkwardness. My aunt was also wearing a decorative scarf. My aunt was also built like a brick house. I was there to deliver her some homemade soup from my mother’s kitchen. She tried her best to make me feel welcome but was gripped with a debilitating headache, a side effect of the chemo. So I sat in silence and she sat with her head between her legs to gain a sliver of relief. She died two weeks later.
My friend pulls me out of my thought when she asks me if I brought my mastectomy binder, she wants to see what breast prosthetics look like. I think it is ironic that I took a mastectomy bra fitter certification class the year before to help cancer survivors with their special needs. I had no idea that I would have to share my knowledge with my dear friend.
I look at my friend one last time before I decide that it is time to go. She looks sleepy but she is smiling. I take a few seconds to relish in her smile and I ask again, to no one in particular, why her?
According to the American Cancer Society:
- It is estimated that 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer and an estimated 57,650 cases of situ breast cancer will be diagnosed among women in 2011.
- Breast cancer accounts for one in three cancers diagnosis in US women.
- Ninety-five percent of new cases and ninety-seven percent of cancer deaths occurred in women forty years and older.
- African-American women have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer before the age of forty.
- African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer at every age.