Her hair was long, blonde and perfectly highlighted. She wore a bright yellow sweater over her flowy spring dress. Her Chanel bag was worthy of the envy I saw in the eyes of her fellow shoppers. But I noticed something they didn't: the slight puffiness of her face, the darkness under her blue eyes, her minor unsteadiness. She was undergoing treatment for cancer. I've seen that look so many times I can’t miss it. I saw it in myself for almost two years.
I was drawn to this woman. I had to reach out and make a connection. How could I let her know that I understood what she's going through? You can't just walk up to a stranger and say, "Hey, I see you have cancer. I had it too!" I was sure she was self-conscious enough, and it had taken every ounce of strength and courage for her to make it out the door today. Instead I said, "Your highlights are gorgeous,"which wasn't a lie because they were stunning. She stumbled over her words. "Umm thanks," she said, "It's a wig." After a slight pause she said, "I have lymphoma."
I asked what kind of treatment she was getting. She explained that she had chemotherapy for seven days, followed by seven days off. Having gone through 18 months of chemotherapy, I knew how brutal this must have been. I marveled at her fortitude.
I briefly explained my backstory. I told her how in 2011, I was diagnosed with cancer and had chemotherapy too. She smiled and said, "Your hair grew back beautifully." She asked if I had children, and when I said yes she stared intently at the counter and asked if I was afraid of not being around for him. Her eyes welled with tears and, as she hung her head, they fell onto that lovely Chanel bag.
I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close. She clung to me, burying her head against my shoulder as she cried. I didn't tell her everything was going to be fine. I said. "I know. I understand." Because that was the only truth I had to offer. Only someone who has faced her own mortality knows that to say anything else would dishonor her fears and anguish.
We weren't talking as "cancer warriors." We were mothers; one woman relating to another. It was a beautiful moment to share with another human being. We spoke for a few more minutes, and then hugged as we said goodbye. "I needed to meet you today," she told me. "Thank you for making me feel less alone in this."
It was then that I had a realization. This is what I'm meant to do. Connect. Connect. Connect. Like a mantra, this word echoed in my mind. Ever since ending treatment, I've wanted to reach out to others affected by this disease, but I didn't know where to begin. I just knew I wanted to inspire someone else the way so many others had inspired me.
I've received so many encouraging messages since my diagnosis, but none that resonated with me more than those from fellow survivors. They knew the difficult road I was facing; the anger, the fear, the feelings of isolation. Only they could tell me, "You can do this." Because they had. Only they could say, "I know. I understand." Because they did.