Jackie and Barbara, Best Friends Who Shared Everything
by Jaqueline Arnold
Yesterday was a very good day, and my heart was celebrating. Why? Because I’ve celebrated four anniversaries since my IBC diagnosis. Four years I never thought I would still be here … years in which I matured and grew as a person…years in which I had the chance to start my life over … years in which I saw miracles occur!!
July 7, 1997, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, IBC. Although I knew nothing about it at first, I quickly came to learn enough that it scared me to death. Well, not to death, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, would I? I felt like I had been handed a death sentence. I was only 47, expecting another 40 years ahead of me. And then, poof! all the security I felt, all the self-confidence I had, everything was gone. It was all destroyed with a few diagnostic tests and a proclamation from my doctor.
It was a miracle that when I finally did go to the doctor about my symptoms, I had a doctor who immediately made a correct diagnosis. He referred me to a surgeon and an oncologist, and the three quickly persuaded me to begin immediate treatment. I was in a state of shock and argued with my oncologist that I simply couldn’t begin chemotherapy two days later because I HAD to get my house cleaned and get things in order. He curtly replied, “You’re interested in cleaning your house, and I’m worrying about saving your life! Which is more important to you?” Obvious choice, wasn’t it?
After committing myself to chemo, I prepared a list of “things to do.” First on the list was to have a portrait made of me with my 20-year-old daughter. All I could think about was dying and my daughter not having a good picture of me to remember me by … or that I might die and have no hair. The silly things we worry about! It took almost an hour of trying to get a successful, not-too-tearful smile from me.
On the way home, my daughter and I stopped to get a bite to eat. That’s when another miracle occurred! A woman who looked vaguely familiar came to our table. She reintroduced herself as Barbara Johnston, a high school friend whom I had not seen in 30 years! She and her husband joined us at our table. She asked what we were up to, and I explained we had just had our picture made since I had inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer, and I was starting chemo the next day. To my shock, Barbara gave me a huge hug and said that she was an IBC survivor of almost five years!!!
As we talked, she spoke only in the most positive tone. It was as if God had listened to my prayers and sent me the greatest gift ever. He sent me Barbara. She was supportive, caring, compassionate, bubbly, energetic, cheerful, informative, and she became my rock! Barbara came into my life when all I could think of was dying, and she gave me a reason for living. She taught me to live each day as fully as I could and to never give up. She taught me it was okay to cry but better to laugh. She lived her life as a loving testament to God. I was a Christian who raged against God for this burden. By her example, she lead me to a closer relationship with Him. You see, God and Jesus were not some distant deities to Barbara; they were her best friends.
A month after we met, Barbara solemnly informed me that her cancer had returned. She was one month shy of the five year mark. She seemed more concerned about how I would accept this news than with her own acceptance. She immediately threw herself into a second battle against IBC. She kept saying that there was a reason. For 3 1/2 years, Barbara fought this cancer with courage, determination, and a positivity that I had never seen.
As Barbara’s health began to deteriorate, she still rallied to my support. When I had fears, she had humorous stories. When I felt angry, she could turn it to understanding. When I didn’t understand the doctors, she had answers. When I felt sad, she brought joy. When I faltered in my faith, she came to the rescue. Never once did Barbara ask anything of me. She only gave of herself…even though her marriage began to fail in the midst of all this. She worried about the effect her illness was having on her son, her parents, and the rest of her family. She worried about her husband and prayed that God would give him strength. She worried about her little dog who also had serious health problems.
I believe that God sent Barbara back into my life to serve as an example of how to LIVE my life with cancer … and should the time ever come, she has shown me how to die with dignity. By her actions, she taught me how to face my fears with optimism and to give a little of myself to anyone who needs a friend or a moment of comfort. I learned the more you give, the more you get back.
Barbara died during the winter. I can’t begin to describe the loss I felt. On the IBC support site we describe those who are fighting against IBC as Warriors. We fight. And we win! Some of us win here on earth, and others win on a higher plane. We call these special people Pathfinders because they have gone on ahead of us and await us at the end of the path. When I see the stars twinkling brightly in a clear night sky, I envision that each star represents some wonderful person who has gone ahead of me. Their starlight “lights” a path for me to follow down here. And, the brightest star, the one which twinkles the most, the one which stands out among all the others, is Barbara’s star. Her light shines on, and her spirit lives on in all of the lives that she touched.
Each year since my diagnosis, I have walked in my local American Cancer Relay for Life. This year I wanted to give my own testament for Barbara. The IBC Research Foundation offers an umbrella for us to use, free of charge. It is decorated with brightly colored satin ribbons on which are embroidered names of Warriors and Pathfinders. The Pathfinder ribbons also bear a star. I ordered a fuchsia Pathfinder ribbon to honor Barbara by making a small donation to the IBC Research Foundation. I attached it to the umbrella, and I walked all afternoon.
Armed with a stack of IBC brochures and a big smile, I told everyone I saw about Barbara and our fight with IBC. I was interviewed on TV, and with every step I took, with every brochure I handed out, I felt Barbara at my side. My special friend was there to get me through another difficult moment. The longer I walked, the more joyful I felt. Barbara guided me again. What a picture we would have made!!
There’s a poem about women who wear purple dresses and red hats when they grow old. I’ve decided to carry multi-colored umbrellas decorated with ribbons! And I DO plan on growing old!!! Well, “older” … I guess many of you would call me old now since I am almost 52.
One of the positive things about having cancer is that it teaches you to live! I don’t know if this disease will come back. But for now, I am enjoying four years of remission. I have seen my daughter graduate from college, find a good job, and get engaged. I am thankful I was here to experience these events, but most importantly, I’ve found a peace within myself that comes from sharing Barbara’s and my experience with other women. Almost every month I get an email from someone who asks me to call a loved one who is facing breast cancer. I do. Day or night. It’s such a little thing to do, but for them it seems to mean a lot.
IBC was once considered to be an automatic death sentence. But no more. Now it’s diagnosed more quickly and treated more aggressively. We WILL win this battle!! With every person we tell, with every brochure we pass out, we each do a little more to beat it. So hang in there. Your life may be different from what you would have chosen, but it IS life. Take time for yourself, and take time for others. And, when all of this is past, look back and say … “There IS life after cancer!”
The JACK is BACK!
Classy Jack’s new slogan: “Life is what you make of it!”
Story Submitted 2001