When my former girlfriend told me she was dying
“It’s too late, David. I’m dying,” she told me.
“No. No. That’s impossible,” I said. “You’re only 24.”
Less than 0.1 percent of all breast cancers occurred in women under 30 years of age from 1975 to 2000, according to the National Cancer Institute. In comparison to older women, those young women who were diagnosed had lower survival rates. My former girlfriend, Angie, was one of these young women and I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t deserve (nor does anyone) her diagnosis. She could not have played any role in causing the cancer anymore than anyone else. She had no family history of breast cancer. And I’d challenge anyone’s absurd assertion that its etiology had anything to do with more than just the fickle finger of fate.
She and I had been dating a few months prior to the diagnosis. We worked and lived around Salt Lake City at the time. It was during the summer and fall of 2001 and in early 2002, which was the year the city hosted the Winter Olympics. I remember she told me she’d never been skiing, a fact that I set out to rectify once and for all. I got her out on the slopes for her first time at Brighton, Utah. It must’ve been as painful for her to experience as it was for everyone else to watch, but she eventually got the hang of it. By the end of the day, she successfully conquered the bunny hill.
She loved the outdoors and we went hiking regularly, visited a handful of waterfalls, and once even found ourselves in a mountain meadow where she decided we’d stay into the evening so we could simply gaze up at the stars. I remember I was delighted when she pulled out a star chart she apparently “just happened to have in her pack.” She also watched her diet and her figure. We’d eat only in non-chain, local restaurants where she’d often order herself a salad. Sometimes we’d stay in, make up some pasta, and watch funny movies. She never drank any alcohol, smoked cigarettes, or took drugs. There were, admittedly, some brief periods of stress during her life (don’t we all have them), but she also laughed a lot. Although a little bit shy in crowds, she could always come up with a good nerdy joke to tell me in private. And she always laughed at my jokes, whether funny or not.
In 2002, she took advantage of an opportunity in New York, that — for the most part — ended our chances at a longer relationship. But by early 2003, she was back in Salt Lake City. When she called me, I took it as welcome news. Only, when I asked if she wanted to go to dinner, she responded with, “no,” and something about how we’d never go to dinner again. She said it was because she was, first, already dating someone else (who she’d later marry) and, second, because she was “dying.”
Angie, who was full of life just months earlier, was diagnosed with stage-4 metastasized breast cancer in February 2003. She was only 24. It was a shock diagnosis. Only three months earlier (in November) she had undergone a complete physical examination and come away with a clean check-up. They missed the cancer. Then, at the time of her diagnosis, the cancer had already invaded her bones. Once there, the cancer cells would eventually spread throughout her body. She would become so frail that she could barely walk and would have to stay in bed and be cared for continually throughout therapy.
Her doctors gave her only six months to live. That’s what she told me over the phone and I just wouldn’t accept it. Regretfully, I only responded with agitation at her apparent resignation at the hands of death. She didn’t seem angry at all. She only told me she was excited to really live out her last few months as best she could in the midst of her family and friends.
She fought that cancer for two years with the help of the Huntsman Cancer Center, where she was treated with chemotherapy. She even went into partial remission for a brief period and, during that time, in May 2004, married a wonderful man — by what her mother tells me — who flew in from New York to stay by her side during the treatment process. Together, they would hope for a full recovery.
But she passed away in February 2005 at only 26. Her family had made the most of her last moments. As her mom kindly shared with me, Angie didn’t enjoy hospital meal replacements they served her and she complained about it. (That’s so Angie). In response, her family and friends arranged parties — where all were invited to the hospital to drink the nasty food down with her. These parties were loud and lively, something the hospital staff would remember well, her mother shared with me.
Naturally, the memory of Angie came running through my mind upon reading Angelina Jolie’s NYT op-ed and her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. Incredibly brave, I thought of her. Then, what really hit home was reading about the courageous Kathryn Petrides, who (like Angie) was be diagnosed with breast cancer at 24. She had a double mastectomy and is now 26.
My own experience losing a loved one to breast cancer is hardly a unique one — and I try to avoid brining personal experiences into this blog — but I just wanted to write something. The fact is that the news of Angie’s death is something that hit me pretty hard. It sent me searching for answers to questions: How could it be that a woman who was so young, so seemingly healthy, could be attacked by something so viscous? What could anyone have been done differently? It would change my outlook on life, the human body, and it would inspire a greater passion to learn about its inner workings, which are incredibly fragile.
Incredibly fragile. Unpredictable. Never to be taken lightly.
Bottom K, O’Leary M, Sheaffer BA, et al. n.d. “Chapter 9: Breast Cancer”. National Cancer Institute. Available at: http://seer.cancer.gov/publications/aya/9_breast.pdf (link contained within Kathryn Petrides’s piece in The Washington Post)