This is an Anonymous’ story, as told by Sandra Fish. Our “Opening Our Hearts” stories are based on people’s real-life experiences with loss. By sharing these experiences publicly, we hope to help our readers feel less alone in their experience of grief and, ultimately, to aid them in their healing processes. In this post, we tell the story of a woman whose friend died of cancer.
Just 8 years ago, in 2006, a friend of mine died from cancer. It feels like a million years ago. We were so young and so much has happened since her death. I’d met Lisa through mutual friends just a few years before she found out she had breast cancer. I believe she was still in her twenties when she was first diagnosed. At that point, I guess we were all shocked. None of us had ever known anyone with cancer, so it was strange. Yet I think we all had a big awareness about the disease, so we were dreading for her. When she found out, it was quite advanced. She worked for a company that more or less was in the health insurance industry—it was related to her work there that led her to having an exam; and that’s when it showed up. I think I knew very little at that time. The word “cancer” made me think someone was going to die. We were so shocked because she was so young. She was soooo, well…I don’t know if she did it to save face or what, but she was brave about it. She made it not a big awful heavy thing for everyone—she wanted to minimize the drama. She kept everyone current as to where she was, and sometimes would disappear for a little bit and come back and organize get togethers. She always wanted to be super independent; she didn’t want to burden people— she was a friend, but she didn’t want people to feel sorry for her.
I told her I didn’t really know how to talk to her about it or if she wanted to talk about it—it was then she started confiding in me. She was telling me when she had a rough round with chemo or whatever the case was.
I told her I didn’t really know how to talk to her about it or if she wanted to talk about it—it was then she started confiding in me. She was telling me when she had a rough round with chemo or whatever the case was. As soon as she found out she had cancer, she had aggressive chemo, and it took everything out of her. She hated it; she was very unhappy. It did make her better. They were able to deal with the cancer, but she was doing SO much chemo. Now seeing other people going through this, it was nothing like it was for her. Even though she was strong, the effects were so dramatic. Eventually it did go into remission so after she was stable, she quit her job and decided to go into nursing, which was a little bit of a scary move because while she was employed she was getting health benefits.
She moved to New York City to go to Columbia and finished there—although a couple times she was so exhausted, she would get sick. I remember when she was in nursing school, right before returning to San Francisco, she spent a summer program in Switzerland doing some exchange thing. Her family didn’t want her to go as they were afraid that her health would turn, but she wasn’t ready to accept excuses to not do what she wanted. She became very sick in Switzerland and ended up returning.
After having had cancer, she got tested regularly. That’s how they discovered she had liver cancer.
She did her residency at UCSF. After having had cancer, she got tested regularly. That’s how they discovered she had liver cancer. I can’t remember the timeline, but she knew she wasn’t going to recover this time. She swore she wouldn’t do chemo ever ever again. From that point on it was very much a roller coaster—she would be wanting to do stuff and be organizing things then disappear. She didn’t do any chemo for a year and then she did. I remember her saying that her doctor was giving her a year, but she kept outliving the time. There was a point that once it got bad it just didn’t get any better. In the end, she was suffering and the doctor was telling her to do chemo, so she went on really heavy bouts of chemo even though she was so miserable—-but she did it because I think she realized she wasn’t ready to die.
I would call her and talk. She was a foodie. She loved life. A large part of our friendship was going out to eat. When she was in Switzerland, she met another nurse, a Filipino—she was making Filipino food and bringing it to work. Lisa had a favorite dish. I’m Filipino and was like, I’ve never made that stuff, but I made it for her. I knew someone who wrote a Filipino cookbook so I got her a copy.
When she would go to chemo, one of the things she hated the most was losing her appetite and not being able to taste. The only thing she could really taste was anything sour—so she told me how she put lots of lemon juice on salad and laughed.
When she would go to chemo, one of the things she hated the most was losing her appetite and not being able to taste. The only thing she could really taste was anything sour—so she told me how she put lots of lemon juice on salad and laughed. There is a Filipino dish made with tamarind. She would ask me to make the dish and I would make it extra sour. We’d laugh about it.
It’s so strange I think, I was going through a lot of stuff in my life when it got bad for her. I had been in a relationship for ten years, got pregnant and lost the baby. I wasn’t planning to have a child, so it was very mixed emotionally. I think talking to Lisa sort of galvanized the idea that I wanted to have children. She would say, “You have to have one.” She sort of brought it out—encouraged me to admit that I really wanted them. She even told me “you are going to get pregnant in the next year”—she was right. I now have a son.
She would tell me all the things happening to her body, always in a humorous way…
Her family lived on Long Island, across the country. She would go back for holidays, but her life was here and her friends were here and she would die here. She moved into a hospice at Laguna Honda. We were all in the hospital when we were waiting for the end. I was there the day before she died. She was very weak, but conscious. She would tell me all the things happening to her body, always in a humorous way: how much water she was taking on, her huge gut, always joking; she continued to do that.
She requested her ashes be scattered. She loved Marin Headlands and Mt. Tam so we took half her ashes to Mt. Tam—we went to the highest point and went to Muir Beach. The other half a friend brought to Italy, where her family is from.
The biggest thing was to be able to have the conversations with her about what it felt like.
The biggest thing was to be able to have the conversations with her about what it felt like. A couple of close girlfriends have been diagnosed with cancer and I’ve felt better equipped to talk to them about it. It is always kind of awkward- you don’t know how they’re processing and how much to share or not share. It’s so tricky, but having been through that with Lisa has helped me be a little more comfortable with it.
Lisa was so active, ambitious — her illness was such a contrast to who she was, but she made it not so uncomfortable to talk about. She made it seem natural.
Were you touched by this story? Read more Opening Our Hearts stories.