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Navigating Cancer With My Best Friend (Guest Post)

Liv Lane (left) and her best friend since childhood, Kelly (right)

End in Mind is dedicated to helping people have difficult conversations about death and navigate grief and loss, and we are grateful to be able to share a deeply moving reflection from Liv Lane, an intuitive artist and inspirational writer devoted to empowering creative women to discover what brings them joy and clarity (learn more about her work here). In this beautiful blog post, she speaks with wisdom, candor, and heart about navigating breast cancer with her best friend since childhood.

By Liv Lane

Have you ever met someone you just knew would be a friend for life? From the time we were little, my friend Kelly was a kindred spirit—giggly, quirky, creative, and passionate. We were sent to the hall countless times for laughing too much in elementary school. As teens, we co-founded a student environmental group and hosted our weekly “World of Weird” radio show from the high school’s basement studio. As my maid-of-honor, she delivered an awkward dinner speech that probably left most guests scratching their heads while I tried to catch my breath from laughing so hard. We just got each other.

But we never imagined we’d get breast cancer together.

As adults, the busyness that comes with having spouses and kids and jobs meant we checked in via text and email frequently but saw each other less than we wanted. We would meet for marathon lunches or kid play dates and then spend months scheduling and rescheduling our next get-together. That changed, though, in early 2018 when Kelly was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. The cancer had already spread beyond her chest, making it Stage IV, for which there is no cure—just treatment to prolong a patient’s life for as long as possible. We were hoping that meant decades.

Priorities shifted and we made time to see each other. We skipped all the small talk and just dove into the deep end every time. And she’d text me novel-length updates in between. During one of our lunches, Kelly told me about some of the women in her support group; one had discovered her breast cancer after noticing a lump under her armpit. I’d never known that could be a symptom and, curiously, I got chills when Kelly said it.

About three months later, I felt a lump in my armpit. Had Kelly not told me about that other woman, I doubt I would have called my doctor about it. I texted Kelly from the clinic where I’d been sent for a mammogram; I could tell by the looks on the nurses’ faces that things were not good. Kelly reminded me via text that “humans can be wrong,” but if they were right, we’d face it together. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2018—not metastatic, but a rare and aggressive form—and Kelly was there to catch me.

Kelly (left) and Liv (right) at Gilda’s Club in November 2018

Being diagnosed months apart felt like some kind of cruel joke, but also the craziest gift. We were lifelines for each other, treasuring our middle-of-the-night texts or four-hour coffees to compare notes on meds and scans and side effects, giving each other pep talks or making the other laugh when it all felt too hard. We weren’t afraid to address the things no one else wants to: Had we created enough lasting memories with our kids? Were there environmentally-sound burial options? Depending on how our bodies responded to treatment, which one of us would go first? Would it be obvious when death was near?

These are NOT topics most people want to discuss; it brings into focus their own fears about mortality and life’s meaning. But allowing ourselves to “go there” also inspired us to make the most of whatever time we had. Kelly decided she wanted to say YES to as much meaning-making as she could. She embraced her little boys’ requests for special outings and family trips. She went on a wilderness retreat designed for cancer patients. She insisted we go to yoga classes at Gilda’s Club, a gathering space for cancer patients and their families.

By early 2020, we were both recovering from unexpected surgeries and bouts of pneumonia. We kept having to cancel yoga but promised we’d get together as soon as we both felt better. I never imagined that instead, we’d have to say goodbye. She called me one day in mid-February sobbing; her cancer had grown and her skin was turning yellow from jaundice. She was terrified. I tried to convince her the doctors would know how to get it under control. I convinced myself the doctors would know how to get it under control. But I could hear in her voice, in the way she kept telling me she loved me, that Kelly knew deep down the end was near.

We texted over the next couple of days, but we were both getting sicker. I wound up in the ER with more pneumonia and she went to the ER after falling at home. Our texting stopped. I don’t know how to explain it, but I could feel her slipping away. Maybe when you’re emotionally and energetically connected to another soul for almost your whole life, that’s what happens; you can practically feel the hole forming in your heart as they leave.

Her oncologist determined she was ready for hospice and she spiraled quickly. It always shocks me how quickly the tides can turn with cancer. When Kelly’s husband urged me to come to the hospital a couple of days later, I talked to Kelly out loud as I drove. It felt like she was somewhere in the in-between—physically here, but maybe also hanging out in the ether, able to hear my voice.

Speaking out loud as I sped down the highway, I thanked her for being my friend for life and hoped that wouldn’t change after death; I promised to listen for her voice whenever I doubted myself, see her everywhere in nature and in her boys’ sparkling eyes, and asked her to hold my hand as I continued my own health journey. By the time I arrived at Kelly’s bedside, her breathing was shallow and she was barely conscious. I told her I loved her, but trusted I’d said everything else I needed to say and that she’d heard me. She was circled by loved ones, all laughing and telling favorite Kelly stories as she floated away to the stars.

A year later, I still miss Kelly like crazy but I am forever grateful that I had the privilege of facing life and death with her. But what we realized together is that it shouldn’t take a life-limiting illness to inspire having those intimate, brave conversations with our dearest friends about the things we fear and the legacies we want to leave behind.

Fortunately, my cancer is in remission, but I’m not out of the woods. I am intentional now about not sugarcoating or downplaying how that feels; I openly share with dear friends (and sometimes even strangers on social media) the reality of dealing with serious complications and anxieties, I invite them into deep conversations about their own fears and hopes, and I am very conscious about how and with whom I spend my time and energy. With each vulnerable thing I share and every moment I consciously cherish, I can feel Kelly right here with me—cheering, laughing, and inspiring me to keep living bravely for as long as I get to be here.

To read more about Liv and Kelly’s friendship, cancer journeys and ongoing connection, check out Liv’s Speaking of Stardust project.

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