“Have you tried running on the new leg yet?” my friend asks.
We’re walking down the high school hall, on the way to our next class. She carries my bag at a pace that matches my crutches and stiff leg. I am far below her range of mobility and know I’ll never have that kind of capacity again. It dawns on me that nothing will ever be the same as it was before, even our friendship.
It’s been 20 months since I first felt the pain in my leg, only 8 months since they found the source of the pain. What the doctors first thought was a 16-year-old girl’s innocent pains from growing and doing too many sports turned out to be something totally different. Ewing’s sarcoma, they said on a rainy summer day.
As we walk down the high school hall trying to find the right classroom, I do everything to forget that I’m bald from chemo, that my friend shines like a star next to me, that I have lost half a leg and gotten it replaced with a big piece of metal, and that I am little more than a guest here in high school. Most of the time I’m at the hospital getting doped with chemo.
“Sorry?” I stop short.
“Have you tried running on your leg?” my friend repeats, as if I didn’t hear her the first time. “Or will you wait a little longer before giving it a go?”
How could she ask me that? I stare at her. My best friend. Did she just offer up the world’s worst joke, or what? Apparently not. She isn’t laughing, and it looks like she is waiting for an actual response.
“No,” I say definitively. “And I won’t ever be able to again!”
We arrive at the classroom, where the teacher is ready to go. There’s no time to continue the discussion. I don’t think I want to anyway. For her, I should just go back to being normal. What she doesn’t understand is that I will never be “normal” again. If she doesn’t understand the seriousness of my limitations now, I can’t explain them to her. It is too late.
My disappointment hovers like a dark cloud and is there when I get home in the afternoon. It’s so much more than just her question. In these 20 months since my diagnosis, it’s become obvious that she chooses not to understand that things can’t ever be the way they were. I have to change – I have no choice. But she is unwilling to let our friendship evolve.
My disappointment ebbs over the days following and it’s hard to enter into an exchange with her and to share my thoughts with her in general. Especially my inner feelings about how frightened I am by my own reflection. Looking in the mirror, I cannot avoid seeing the sick girl. Every night on the way to bed I pass by a mirror on the wall of my bedroom where I see an image of a sick, bald person with a face that has neither eyelashes nor eyebrows. My brother says I look like a mix between Gollum from Lord of The Rings and a fish! Every night I think that it can’t really be me, that it must not be me.
Just as I turn out the light every night, eventually I am forced to close the door on sharing my emotions with my friend.
Luckily, new friends show up. The popular girl whom I have noticed and known just a little but have never been close with is suddenly by my side. She’s there when I return from another round of chemo and need a hand to hold. She’s there when I am desperate to breathe normal teenage air – longing for a party, a kiss from a boy, and a new pair of jeans! Chemo makes it hard to fit what’s in my closet.
Along with her comes an army of new friends. They bring love and support and give me a feeling of being wanted and included – despite cancer. Most importantly, they give me something to fight for. Before I know it, they become my road crew. I am no expert but after several rounds of chemo and a big surgery I know one thing: Just like in the Tour de France, no one climbs their cancer mountain alone. This crew knows exactly when to give me a hug or a high five.
Friends don’t cure cancer. The doctors do. The chemo does. But these friends help me through the toughest days. That’s how they make a difference, and that’s what I remember when someone asks how people treated me when I had cancer.