I met Kristin during my first shift in an urban E.R. in Portland 3 years ago. I was working in Fast Track as a physician assistant, and she was the assigned nurse for the day. She was strong and outspoken and said within minutes of meeting me, "I'm probably going to offend you today. I apologize in advance, okay?"
"Okay," she said, and we got to work.
We worked well together, but other than work, we had little else in common. She was tough, outspoken, tattooed and pierced—and I was none of those things. Earlier in her life she had battled an addiction, and lived in a car while she put herself through nursing school. Then she raised two kids as a single mom while working full time in the E.R.
A year after I left that job, I was having coffee with my friend Stephanie, who works in the same E.R. She told me that Kristin had just been diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer at age 42. She had already started chemotherapy to shrink the tumors, and in a few months would have a mastectomy and radiation.
"How's she doing with everything?" I asked Stephanie.
"You know—it's hard," she said.
I nodded. It's been five years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27 and went through a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I also remember how far away God felt during that time, how I asked everyone I met—from the hospital chaplain to my oncologist to my pot-smoking neighbor—how God could do this to someone he loved when I wouldn't do it to someone I hated.
A few days after I found out about Kristin, I went to visit her. I handed her a jar of soup I'd made, and gave her a hug. She hugged me back, and didn't let go for a long time. When we pulled apart, I saw that she was crying. "No one tells you how lonely cancer is," she said.
"I know," I said. "Sweetheart, I know."
I also remember how it felt when people pierced through my isolation when I was going through months of exhausting treatments.
My mom traveled a thousand miles to stay with me in my tiny studio apartment, and slept on a mat next to my bed for months.
My friends from grad school came to visit, and sat on my bed and played mindless rounds of card games to distract me from my misery.
I remember my therapist, who let me sit with her for an hour every week and weep, trying as hard as I could to survive cancer treatments without losing my mind. She suggested at one point that I take it "one day at a time," which sounded ridiculous. A day? A whole day of feeling nauseated, with a metallic taste in my mouth, no hair, all my joints aching, and no end in sight?
Even taking life one hour at a time seemed like too much. At my lowest point, the most helpful thought I had was that I could take this experience one breath at a time. If I could breathe one more time—just one more time—I could survive.
The first time I went to visit Kristin, we sat in her living room and talked for almost three hours. Suffering seems to break down the artificial barriers we erect. And when all the categories fall away, we realize that we all pretty much want the same things. We want to feel loved, we want to know that we're not alone, and we want to know that it matters to someone, anyone, when we are in pain.
Genesis 16 describes the pain that ensues after a barren Sarai tells her husband Abraham to sleep with their servant Hagar to try to conceive an heir. After Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham's child, Sarai treats her so badly that she runs away into the desert.
Hagar, whose name means flight, is running off into the arid desert when God comes after her and soothes her and tells her what to do next. Before she leaves the desert, she becomes the only person in the Bible to name God. She calls him El Roi, The God Who Sees.
Part of the beauty of loving God is that through simple acts of compassion, we get to bear witness to El Roi, the God who loves and sees his struggling children.
Last night we threw a party for Kristin. Stephanie and I found a restaurant to donate their space, recruited a band to play for free, and plotted a fundraiser for Kristin that also gave her the chance to say goodbye to her breasts before the mastectomy.
When I was getting dressed for the party, I looked in my closet for anything pink to wear. I found a pink messenger cap I had worn during chemo to hide my bald head. I put it on and looked in my bathroom mirror. I thought about the girl I was when I was wearing that hat four years ago, and the girl I am now. And as I studied my reflection, I cried tears of relief and thankfulness that God saw me in my desert of cancer treatments and pursued me in love and mercy.
Before the band started playing last night, I read my favorite quote from the physician Paul Tournier: "I believe we can face everything when we know we are loved … " and told Kristin she may be able to get rid of her breasts, but the rest of us are here to stay no matter what.
After the short speech, Stephanie and I led Kristin outside and gave her two pink helium-filled balloons. And with a crowd of family and friends and coworkers around her, cheering her on, she let them go.
Sarah Thebarge lives and practices medicine in Portland, Oregon. She writes at My Tropic of Cancer and the Burnside Writers Collective.
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