While I was reading his pledge, it brought to my mind all my friends who have been fighting this terrible illness, so terrible that in France, people still hesitate to name it clearly. Cancer’s name is ‘a long illness.’
It upsets me a lot since I believe that you can’t fight something with no name.
So cancer it is and cancer it will be.
As I said before, many friends fought or are fighting cancer. Some won the battle. Some are on their way to victory. Some were defeated and died.
I come from a family who has been totally cancer free which amazes me a lot mainly because I do not enjoy being the exception that proves the rule.
We were cancer free but a few members of our extended family did have to fight cancer.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, a cancer specialist thought it funny to welcome me into the ‘big cancer family.’ I hated the idea but it is true that somehow cancer patients are bound together, a little bit like family members. We all go through the same anguish and fear, the same treatments (more or less) and we all hope we are going to pull through.
When a cancer patient dies on you, you are loosing a part of yourself too.
My cousin Pierrette who was ten years older than me belonged to this cancer family.
She was my cousin’s wife (on my mother’s side). They met in high school when they were 14. They became very good friends and then they fell in love or maybe it was the other way around.
My Bonne-Maman’s brother, Martial and his wife, ‘adopted’ her when my cousin brought her home to meet them when he learnt her story (quite impressive considering that this happened in 1948).
She was an orphan raised by her sister who was 10 years older than her. The two girls had lost their father, mother, sister and brother to cancer in a very short time.
My cousins got married very young, right after graduating from high school. They went to the same university. They taught PE in the same high shool. They were briefly separated when he had to do his military service. But he managed to come home every week-end. By then, they already had two sons.
Both were accomplished athletes with national and international fame. He was a volleyball player and she was a famous swimmer.
They were happy people. As I grew up, I got very close to her. When you are a teenager, you desperately need role models. She was my role model.
In 1964, they decided to try to have a baby girl. Well, they got another baby boy!
He was six months old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer? At the time, little was known about what was to become a national scourge.
We were devastated. It was so unfair. There she was, so young and athletic and living such a healthy life. Of course, there was her family history but the cancers they had died of were not related to breast cancer.
I was sixteen at the time. My Bonne-Maman and I, we left home to spend a few weeks with them. The children needed us, especially the baby.
Surgery had been extensive and quite rough. This was the only way known to try to cure cancer at the time.
She was a fighter and pretty soon she resumed her life without caring too much about all her scars and pains and worries. I remember her laughing about it all, saying that anyway they had decided not to have a large family.
In France (and maybe elsewhere), when you get cancer, you are kind of ostracized. In the 1960’s, the school system didn’t want her to go back to teaching PE. She fought hard but to no avail. She was feeling perfectly fit but she had been through cancer and this was the end of her teaching career.
She then decided she could do a lot of good to unwanted children... children with Down’s syndrome. She took classes again and she found a job in an institution. She taught them well. She loved them and never complained. An unwanted woman working with unwanted children.
She was feeling so good though that we started hoping that she would survive after all. We did believe that some day, someone would discover THE therapy... This was the end of the 60s.
We hoped and hoped.
One day, she felt really sick again. Cancer had come back. Metastases. By then they had started using chemo, a deadly treatment at the time. She needed a lot of blood transfusions. So we went and gave our blood. It became so natural to give our blood... One phone call and off we went to the hospital.
She was a fighter and she survived quite a few years. In between chemos, she tried to live a normal life for her children’s sake. She was too weak to resume teaching but she still was hoping that one day...
But for her, there would be no miracle.
I still think a lot about her. Over the years, the pain and the hurt and the anger have softened. She was very present in my heart when they told me I had breast cancer. Because I knew what I was in for.
I was very surprised though when I discovered that chemo no longer was the appalling form of torture she had been through.
But I was even more surprised when I realized that doctors were still completely at a loss to explain cancer and the chances one had to survive.
I know that during those past seven years, she has been alive in my memory and many times I have found strength in her fierce will to survive.
In Southern France, we have very strong Northern winds. When you are playing ball on the beach and the ball flyes away to the sea, it’s impossible and even very dangerous to swim and try to catch it. Its speed on the waves is amazing and it disappears very quickly... on its way to Africa. (This is what we used so say!)
My dear cousin was the only person we knew who was able to recover our lost balls. She was such an amazing swimmer even when she had been through extensive surgery a few months before.
Maybe some of you will think she was crazy. I believe she was the bravest woman on earth. She was a fighter.
Everytime things would get very rough for me, I’d bring back to life my cousin Pierrette who had so much spunk in her to dive into a very cold sea to bring back their runaway ball to her children even though she was so disabled.
The cure we had been hoping for when she was still alive hasn’t been found yet. 47 years later.
A lot of things have improved though, enough to give hope to whoever is diagnosed with cancer. New screening tests. New chemos. New treatments.
And now all I have to do is to close my eyes and rejoice because my cousin never failed to recover our vanishing balls after all. For years and years.
*Good Luck, and Good Night*