What It's Really Like When Your Best Friend Gets Cancer
Patricia and Seana have been friends for decades. When Seana was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Patricia learned what it really meant to be a caregiver.
Patricia Fischer, a former nurse and a published author, and her best friend Seana, a chef, first met when they were babies. Recently, Fischer told the story of their friendship at an Our Way Forward event, a program created by Tesaro with input from the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. The program aims to change the way people think about advanced ovarian cancer. Health caught up with Fischer for more details on this inspiring friendship.
I was born in October 1967, and Seana was born in December of the same year. She always points to me and whispers, “She’s older!” Our dads were friends at the University of Texas, where they were both working and going to school. Our moms met through our dads, and back then, they would get together and play bridge. Seana and I were put in the same playpen together.
We stayed friends over the many years. We went trick-or-treating together. We went to a Jackson 5 concert when we were 11. And we even remained close through high school and college too. As life took over, we drifted apart a little, but we always found our way back to each other. It doesn’t seem fair that we’ve been friends for 50 years already. Honestly, that went way too quickly.
In 2011, I was at a Starbucks drive-thru with my arm out the window getting my coffee and the phone tucked under my ear when Seana told me she had ovarian cancer. It felt like someone had punched me in the face.
Six months before, she had been worrying about breast cancer. Every woman in her family had breast cancer by the time they were 37. Here she was, 43, no breast cancer, just waiting for it to happen. She had told me ovarian cancer scared her so much because it’s so hard to find. [Ovarian cancer is sometimes linked to the same underlying genetic cause as breast cancer.]
She decided to go in and have her ovaries removed preventively, and she called me from the recovery room. She already had stage 3 ovarian cancer. I thought, Oh gosh, this is her worst nightmare. Then I started thinking, How do I fix this, how do I help her. It was earth-shattering.
I’m in San Antonio, and Seana lives in Maine, so I asked her what I could do from 2,600 miles away. She said, "Don't go anywhere." She told me that as soon as someone says they have cancer, their social circles shrink. So we decided that I would text her while she was in the chair for chemo.
At first, there were times where I felt like, What do I say? We had talked about everything over the years, but now an awkwardness had been thrown in the mix. That was unnerving, because I felt like if I had allowed that awkwardness to really take hold, it would have killed our relationship. That was a loss I wasn’t willing to tolerate.
Before her diagnosis, we had a kind of comfort zone: We could ask each other any question, and if we didn't want to talk about it, we didn't feel offended or put off. But after she began cancer treatment, sometimes I didn't know how to ask Seana a question. So I learned to check with her and ask, "How should I say this? How do I ask about that?" Somewhat arrogantly, I felt I had a lot of these tools in place because I had been a nurse for 10 years. Seana helped me really know how to ask a question to someone going through a really difficult time.
During her chemo sessions, we would text about our kids, or what movies were coming out. She’s a trained chef, so there were times I’d ask for recipe help or suggestions of where characters I was writing about should eat. A lot of times we talked about nothing, the way friends do. I got very good at listening. Sometimes we would just sit in silence on the phone. It's one of the most beautiful things about our friendship; we don't have to say anything sometimes, it's just understood. Now, Seana and I talk or text almost daily; it’s rare for us to go more than a couple of days without talking.
Sometimes being the caregiver isn't always about being physically there. It's following up later when I say I'm going to. It's texting on Friday because I know she's having a test done or labs drawn. It's sending a gift card for her to buy dinner at a restaurant close by. Sometimes it’s just sending a text or an email or a card and not expecting anything back. “You don’t have to respond, I just want you to know I’m thinking about you,” I’ll say. It's following through. It's asking the right questions, learning the boundaries, and approaching people in a comforting way.
It would be really easy to play into the whole, This is terrible, this sucks, I can’t believe this anger and frustration as a friend and caregiver. But it doesn’t help the situation or the person you say you’re there for. You can still be all those things—believe me, I’ve said many a cussword toward ovarian cancer. You can talk about all that with other caregivers, yet keep an open line of dialogue with the person you’re supposed to be helping.
If you have a friend who is diagnosed with cancer, encourage your friend to seek out other survivors of the same condition or cancer type. We can be the best cheerleaders as caregivers, but we are not the people who are going through it—who have to take the medicines every day, who are tired from chemo. We are there to root them on and do what we can, but they also need people who can say, "I’ve been through that."
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When Seana was diagnosed in 2011, at first we didn’t think we’d get to 50 years of friendship. I wondered how I was going to live without her. Since her treatment back then, she has been diagnosed with a couple of new tumors, and she’s now starting a new chemo.
I’ve left the door open for her to tell me what she needs whenever, and right now, she’s hopeful and still in the game. As the extravert of the two of us, it's been good for me to become a better listener. It’s perfectly okay to simply be an ear or a shoulder and not try to fix it at all but just simply listen.