Cancer Survival Stories
I have a cousin, Kim, whom I’ve always admired. First, she’s older than me. You know how, when you were a little girl, the older girls in your family were these mysterious beings? Bigger than you, but still on your side of the fence, when the adults and kids separated into camps at family gatherings.
Older cousins wore cooler clothes, talked about their boyfriends, and got their hair styled, rather than simply shortened for the summer. They gave you a preview into the next part of your life, a peek into the mysteries of teenagerhood.
I wasn’t close to Kim growing up. She lived in the Midwest, while I grew up on the East Coast. Still, we had a connection. Our mothers were sisters–two of four sisters, plus three brothers, all of whom wrote regular letters to all the rest, carefully typing six carbon copies each time. So all of us cousins, if we cared to read the family letters, knew what one another were doing, even though we were separated by miles of geography, gaps in age, and different religions, which back then could be a big deal.
I heard about Kim’s ballet lessons, her academic successes in high school, her years at the University, her subsequent marriage to a Yugoslavian artist (which I considered quite daring, and totally outside the pale for an innocent Midwestern girl like my cousin. That kind of behavior was more expected from us ever-so-worldly Easterners.)
I was also connected to Kim through the boxes of clothes that would arrive each summer. Among the girl cousins, there was a stepping-stone hierarchy based on both age and size. The biggest/oldest cousin passed her outgrown hand-me-downs to the next in line, and so on down through 12 of us. Kim was my hand-me-down cousin. And she definitely had better clothes than what my family could afford. Wool skirts, tailored shorts, Shetland sweaters…
Back in the day (as my son would say), we didn’t mind wearing “used” clothing. Anything different was “new,” especially when your mom sewed most of your clothes herself–which, upon reaching junior high age, was a definite fashion no-no. So Kim’s beautiful clothes colored my impression of this girl whom I’d actually met only a few times in my life.
Over the years I’ve kept up with Kim and her family through Christmas cards. I “watched” from afar as she and her husband had children, as his career as an artist flourished, as they traveled the world. I admired the photos of her grandchildren, felt a little tug of regret as I realized the girl who’d been just ahead of me in the hand-me-down chain was now reaching retirement age.
And then, last Christmas, the news changed. Kim had cancer. Bad cancer. Lung cancer that had spread to her bones before she even realized those aches and pains weren’t simply arthritis. Cancer in her skull, her hips, her legs… She was in a wheelchair. The doctors said she had a few months to live. I felt the blast of pain that comes with that news–even when delivered from afar.
I kept up with Kim through my mom, as she underwent months of debilitating radiation, first to her head, then her torso, her legs… Her beautiful blonde hair thinned, along with her body. My mom showed me pictures. Then I didn’t hear anything for awhile… until I got a phone call, last Saturday.
It was Kim. She and her husband had decided to travel East to see an aunt and cousins; they’d be passing close by. Could they stop in? Of course! I baked some cookies (my default mode of hospitality), and waited with some trepidation. I hadn’t seen her in 15 years; how much would cancer have changed her?
Me and Kim–two lucky survivors.
When she stepped out of the car, I let my breath out. She was Kim. Not cancer-ravaged Kim, but beautiful Kim, the cousin I’d always thought looked like a movie star. “WOW, you look great!” I said as we hugged. She told me that with treatment, the doctor’s dire prediction of “a few months” had gradually gone to “6 months” to “a year” to “let’s just take it as it comes.” She’d gone from wheelchair to walker to cane to walking just fine. In fact, she was a walking miracle.
There’s no special ending to this story. We reconnected, talked and laughed for 3 hours, enjoyed one another’s company. Then she headed south, leaving me with this takeaway: cancer miracles do happen. Never give up. Never ever ever ever EVER give up.
Oh, and another thing I learned. It wasn’t Kim who had the nice clothes. “Nah, my clothes were awful; my mom had terrible taste. Those were Kris’ clothes you got, after I grew out of them,” she confessed. Kris was Kim’s hand-me-down cousin. So, after all these years–thanks, Kris!