Friday, October 1, 2010

A Force of Nature

My friend Karen is something of a hero to me.  She was radiant.  She was laugh-till-you-cry funny.  She was full of life.  She was a mother.  She was an actor.  She was a warrior.  She was a sister. She was a daughter. She was a friend.  And she had breast cancer.  But never once did breast cancer have her.  Even when the cancer was at its worst, her indomitable spirit and zest always shone through. 

When I first me Karen, we were both playing the same part on alternating nights in this ridiculous dinner theater play.  I wasn't sure we would get along.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  We connected instantly, and when we finally had the opportunity to play different roles opposite each other (she as the evil diva and I as the drunken mess), it was magic.  "I always felt so bad having to be so mean to you, but it really was fun to be so deliciously evil," she would say with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin (she had the best impish smile you've ever seen!).  Not only did we share a love of theater, but also of elephants, good food, and just about anything creative.  Karen had an incredible artistic streak. 

I'll never forget the day she called me to tell me she was sick.  We often chatted during the workday, so it wasn't particularly strange when I saw that she was calling me at my desk.  "I don't want you to worry and I don't want you to get upset, but I have breast cancer.  And I am going to be fine," she declared.  She faced a mastectomy and chemo, but she did it with such a positive attitude that I always said, "If I ever get sick, Karen's the first person I'm going to call."  She didn't just sit back and wait for the doctors to do their thing . . . she sought out an acupuncturist, a healer, and a hypnotist.  And she got better.  She liked to joke that she was the only person who actually gained weight while on chemo, her healer was so good. 

And when she got better, she did the most amazing thing.  She contacted a photographer friend of hers and asked him to photograph her nude in various stages of recovery and reconstruction. The warrior goddess -- that same impish grin, and a tremendous amount of strength.  It was around this time that we started writing together.  We'd meet on Friday nights at Love Cafe with my laptop in tow and work on a sitcom that I'm determined to this day to get made somehow.  The original story was her idea, but it grew organically out of our synergy.  The only way I can describe it is magic. 

Then life happened and we both got busy.  Work, family, hobbies, and all those other day-to-day things got in the way of our regular writing dates.  But we always kept up with each other.  In January, 2008, as I was planning my wedding, I got a call from Karen's sister informing me that the cancer had come back and that Karen had surgery again.  It was like a punch in the gut.  It had been nearly seven years that she'd been okay.  She was a survivor.  It was over, the cancer was gone.  Only it wasn't. 

Karen's friends rallied around her as she recovered at a friend's house in Chevy Chase.  It was at this time when I got to meet Karen's sister ("Doesn't she look like Meg Ryan?" Karen would say with pride), her two sons whom she loved more than anything, and the army of women who were her friends, confidants, and supporters.  And I realized just how incredible this woman was.  Friends clamoured for the chance to spend time with her and make her meals.  There literally were days when the house looked like Grand Central Station.  And there was Karen, feeling ill, but basking in the glow of all the love.  It was powerful -- just like Karen.

She didn't make it to our wedding in September, because though the cancer was gone at that point, she was still going through treatment and just wasn't feeling up to it.  We talked a several more times after that, and again life got in the way.  One night I had a startlingly vivid dream about Karen, which prompted me to call her.  When her sister answered the phone, I knew it wasn't good.  Just a week earlier Karen and the doctors had decided that nothing more could be done and treatment would cease.  I could hear in her sister's voice all that that implied. 

Karen died in March 2009.  Her memorial service was standing room only.  Her army of women (and men) joyfully remembered the force of nature that she was.  That she is.  I talked to her sister that day, and she declared, "You have to get that sitcom made.  Karen's going to haunt you if you don't." And I promised I would. 

After seeing the life force that Karen was able to command in her army of women, I was moved to join another Army of Women.  Army of Women is a nonprofit that provides the opportunity for women (and men!) to take part in breast cancer research studies aimed at determining the causes of breast cancer -- and how to prevent it.  It harnesses the power of the internet to connect women and researchers.  And today is Blog for Your Breasts Day, a day to recruit for that army.  It takes just a minute to sign up -- and you'll be added to a database to learn  about research projects and given the opportunity to opt in to studies that interest you.  The projects are not clinical trials, but are prevention based.  So I encourage you, if you're over 18, to please join the Army of Women -- and tell your own army to join.  It costs you nothing, but could make all the difference in the world.  Learn more.

I did it for Karen.  Who will you do it for?

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