Back in early July, before I’d gone to Spain, I had lunch with an American friend of mine. I hadn’t seen her since before all this began, and we obviously needed to catch up. I’d known Jess since before I moved to Belgium, though I didn’t meet her face-to-face until I got there. We’d been “set-up” by a mutual professional contact, as we had the same interest in international education, and thus a friendship was born.
For our catch-up, we met at a local Mexican place, me still in a chest bandage, but now “tubeless”. She had lots of questions and I gave her the entire story. At the end, she told me about her own medical issues. Namely, that she had a very mysterious symptom that no one was able to diagnose: every time she drank alcohol, even two sips, she would experience a pain in her neck, which would radiate out. Sometimes it went all the way down her arm. It usually lasted about 90 minutes.
In that phrase that people would begin to say so often, “of course, it’s nothing compared to your problems, but…”, she described it to me. (I always hated this. Of course, it’s good if my situation made others put their problems into perspective. But at the same time, I did not want my friends to stop telling me about themselves. It’s not like I ever felt that other people should suddenly decide their lives were perfect in the face of my problems! Nor did I think everyone was obligated to compare their problems with mine. Cancer is a pretty hard card to beat! And everyone has got their own drama to deal with.) She told me how it was getting worse, how she was now having to take pain pills every night, and how she was frustrated at the lack of progress in resolving it. They’d run all sorts of tests but couldn’t find a thing. Now the docs were thinking she had a pinched nerve, and I recommended my wonderful, house-call-making PT.
Then, just a few days before chemo began, I got a call from Jess with the most unbelievable news. You know that problem that was “nothing” compared to mine? Well it was almost exactly mine. Turns out she had Hodgkin’s (lymphatic cancer) and would be starting her own chemo just a week after me. I was terribly sorry for her, but was so relieved we’d have each other to go through it.
Jess was to start her own chemo two weeks after I started. Even though our chemos would be different, She was grateful to have someone just a bit ahead of her to give her a preview of what to expect. I told her that I treasured her as my new dearest friend because she was going above and beyond the call of duty since, throughout cancer, everyone says over and over “let me know if I can do anything,” or “if there’s anything you want or need…”, they’d be happy to oblige. I said to Jess, “but you’re the only one who understood that what I really wanted to say was ‘Please don’t make me do this alone’. Talk about throwing yourself on the fire! That is a true friend!”
Suddenly, the coincidences that Jess and I had in common were freaky. We were both 30 with birthdays a few days apart, were both Americans who had known each other previous to my moving abroad, who ended up – by sheer coincidence – living just few blocks apart in the same city. We shared the same (uncommon) professional interests. We were both cohabitating with our foreign boyfriends, which created the same unique combination of medical, insurance and residence issues. Our anniversary dates (with the boyfriends) were even just one day apart! At the “Office of Foreigners” we became known in tandem. If I was having trouble explaining my unusual situation, I’d say, “do you know the other American girl with cancer?”
They’d straighten up. “Do you mean…Ms. Black?”
“Yes,” I’d say. “I’m the other girl.”
And they’d say, “ohhhhh! Of course. Now I get it!”
Thus, my “cancer twin” was born. (You can find a photo of us here. I will post a photo properly once I am back on my own computer.)
I cannot say how treasured a friendship hers would come to be. Now I had someone who really did get what it was like. Someone who really did find it funny when I made a joke about chemotherapy or cancer! Someone who found blood draws, needles, stupid doctors, scary tests and losing hair all sincerely hysterical. What a relief! We had a whole world all our own. We could bitch and moan about all this and more, as long as we wanted, and never got tired of it, never found it uninteresting. She didn’t just listen, she understood. While I can’t say that I wouldn’t have traded it, for either of us, I certainly have a treasured bond with her and our experiences together cemented my feeling that Belgium really was where I was supposed to be. You’ll be hearing more about Jess as the story goes, I’m sure.