What Has Cancer Stolen From Me?


Yesterday, I came across a blog posting on Nancy’s Point.  I had never visited Nancy’s Point, but while on Twitter, @CancerCenter was asking Nancy’s question “What has cancer stolen from you?”  As is the case with Twitter, 140 words or less (often in the form of a question) catches your eye and leads you to an inspirational bit of writing, some useful blogging tips … or occasionally, when you’re not paying attention, a porn site or an offer for a free iPad.

The first question Nancy asked was “How do you react to the phrase “typical cancer diagnosis”?  My short answer is there is no typical cancer diagnosis.  How can anyone possibly imply that there is? Perhaps, scientifically there is a “typical” cancer, but don’t tell that to the person sitting in a chemo chair, losing their hair, their energy, their sex drive, their fertility, their job, their finances and quite possibly even their life.

As someone who has never had cancer but interacts with cancer patients/survivors, advocates and oncology professionals for a living, I am always reluctant to comment on the topic of cancer in a personal way.  I am not a survivor. Not of cancer, at least.  And I’ll be honest with you, after seeing it up close and personal, it is not a club I have any interest in joining.  I think the world is coming to an end if you deny me coffee.  The people who face this beast are warriors.  I’m no warrior.

The second question Nancy asked was, “What has cancer stolen from you?”  The first answer that came to my mind was: Gahlit.

I barely got to know her, and yet I miss her everyday.

I met Gahlit in May of 2009.  I honestly have no idea exactly how she found me, all I can tell you is she was incredibly persistent.

The day I met Gahlit, I remember it was not a particularly good one.  I was tired.  I was cranky.  Gahlit was anything but.  She burst through the door of my office like a golden spray of sunshine gleaming through an otherwise cloudy day.  I was immediately struck by her stunning beauty.  How can this beautiful woman, just a few years older than I am, possibly have cancer?  Who was I kidding?  After working for two years in cancer, I knew how possible it was.

Before anything else, she wanted to know everything about me.  How old are you?  How long have you been married?  Do you want to get pregnant?  Did you get your FSH tested?  How often are you having sex?  I suddenly had a fertility director.   It was intrusive.  It was pushy.  I loved it.  She somehow reminded me of a much younger version of my grandmother who, upon meeting my husband, laid him on a couch and took his blood pressure in front of the whole family.  Needless to say, it was through the roof.

Once I had a fertility plan in place, she sat on the couch in my office to tell me all about her ongoing battle with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). You could tell the only person on her mind throughout the story was her two year old daughter, Maayan.  I can’t plan dinner for the week without getting overwhelmed, and here she had life mapped out if she lived or if she died.  I cannot even imagine being told I would be missing my child’s life.  Would I collapse in a state of Eeyore or rise to the occasion with grace?  These are questions that have kept me up at night.

Gahlit wanted to make sure she had something for Maayan at every milestone: her birthdays, her graduations, her wedding.  She wanted to read her bedtime stories.  She wanted to somehow be there while she was growing up, even if she just had to imagine all of the moments when Maayan was just two years old.  She even went so far as to tell me that she wanted to make sure Marc remarried.  She wanted him to find love again.

Gahlit had thought about things in life that had never crossed my mind and she still had more energy in her pinky than I had in my entire body that day.  My main thought was, “you’re not going anywhere — your too full of life.  Your energy could solve world peace.” 

I do this a lot … live in a state of denial when I am told someone is dying.  I like to conjure up all of the reasons they can’t possibly go anywhere.  It’s my own inner sarcastic rebuttal.

At the end of her story, Gahlit looked me in the eye and said, “I might not be here in a few years to watch Maayan grow-up. I want her to know how much I loved her.  I want her to know me.  I want her to remember me.” I remember this because I have a habit of writing down things people say as they say them.  It’s my doodle mechanism.  It’s still in my notes from that day.

Before leaving, Gahlit handed me every bit of footage she had filmed since she found out she had cancer eighteen months earlierThe responsibility and faith she had just placed in me was overwhelming.   Joyous desperation.  That is how I remember my first afternoon with Gahlit.  Despite everything, she was truly joyous.  She beamed every time she said Maayan’s name.  But lurking beneath all of the joy was a desperate desire.  The desire for her daughter to know her, to remember her, to feel her love even if she was no longer standing beside her.  It was more than my heart could take that day.  I hugged her as she left and then sat in my office and cried.

For the first time in my life, I was watching someone my age playing beat the clock with their life.  Their timeline had an ending she was having to visualize every single day.  Her inner question from the moment I met her was always, “How much can I pack in before they come and take me?”  Can I get one more birthday?  One more Saturday at the beach?  One more morning listening to the sound of my husband and daughter laughing?

In the coming weeks I digitized all of the footage.  I went to her house several times and met Maayan.  She and her husband, Marc, secured tickets for me and my friend Xaque to see No Doubt at the Universal AmphitheaterThat concert was the only time I ever got to meet Marc before he called and asked me to edit a memorial video for Gahlit’s service.

The final phone call from Gahlit came when I was away at my grandmother’s funeral.  When I answered the phone she just said, “The cancer is back.  This is it.  I probably won’t be here by Christmas.”  She was sobbing.  I had seen her sob on videos in my office, but on the phone that day she heaved uncontrollably. I could barely understand her.  The hope was gone.  There was an official end to how much more she could pack in before they came to take her.  She did not make it until Christmas.  She did not even make it it until November, but she did make it to Maayan’s third birthday.

When I received the phone call from Gahlit, I was mourning the  sudden loss of my grandmother, but a part of me felt guilty telling Gahlit of my own sadness.  I could hear the longing in her voice after she asked how old Memom was.  She was 85.  She had three children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.  She had lived a good long life.

Gahlit would never have a long life.  Maayan would have lots of videos, but no matter how much you document, a video cannot kiss you goodnight.  Deep down Gahlit knew this and I know this pain was unbearable.  She was putting a lot faith in Marc and her immediate friends and family to talk of her every day to Maayan.  And even me, a virtual stranger, to some extent.  I was the keeper of so much raw footage.  Raw Gahlit. 

Cancer has taken someone who taught me more about life in a few afternoons than I might have ever learned about these things stumbling around on my own.  I will always be honored to help Maayan remember her mother, in whatever small ways I can.

Ah, Gahlit.  Cancer stole you … but not really from me.  Cancer stole you from Maayan and Marc — your Mom and Dad, your family, your lifelong friends.  I wish I had met you some other way, and that you were still here.  There are days when I could use your energy.  I keep your picture on my desktop to remind me of the blessing it was to know you at all.


By: Terry Wilcox