Four years ago, a woman I love—a friend who felt sisterly and vibrant—died of breast cancer. She was 33. I feel like I must spell it out: thirty-three. I want to paint it on a brick wall in the middle of the night. I want to wear it like the scarlet letter A. I want every billboard to read two numbers: 3 and 3.
Her name was Julia. The daughter of wealthy Finns, she'd spent the last decade in London as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. But living life in a suit and managing money was an empty legacy handed down from the ghost of her father. She wanted to live her own life, to know what that was.
Though Julia later told me she hated me at first—who's that skinny bitch? she thought—we developed a closeness I'd never felt before or since. We met at a weekend workshop, the kind you go to when you're on a journey of self-discovery. At the post-weekend celebration, when we still barely knew each other, I walked up to her and gave her a bead, yellow splashed with red. "This is for your shaman," I said. She looked at it, then at me. The smooth plain of her Scandinavian face, its beauty both simple and striking, crumpled into a child's cry.
Years later, when we sat on a bench in Hyde Park on my birthday, the rose garden blooming around us, the petals scattered on the ground, her face slid into sorrow when she told me I was the first person who had truly seen her.
After the workshop, she joined my women's circle, which met in my flat in Bloomsbury, a five-minute walk from the British Museum. I couldn't help but admire Julia—her hazel eyes lined in black, her body draped in a leather jacket or faded pastels heavy with cotton flowers. Her soft features—feather-thin eyebrows, silken hair, a doll's nose—reminded me of my Scandinavian past. One evening as we sat cross-legged on her living room floor in Notting Hill, she told me, "We've been meeting like this for centuries. I just know it." We called each other shaman sisters, and talked about our connection to the world we couldn't see.
When Julia jumped out of her linear life as an investment banker, she brought intensity alongside her liberation. She became a regular at 10-day silent retreats. She read voraciously, recommending one book after another on spiritual healing, energy work, archetypes, all of which I have bought, none of which I have read. She didn't live outside reality, but each of the new rules formed definitive, hard lines. She got cross with me when I brought her a glass of water during dinner, telling me, "I don't drink with my meals!" as if I should have known.
It's hard, at any point, to determine what we should have known. I wanted to know how to heal her, just as she wanted to know how to heal herself. According to the oft-doubted Kübler-Ross stages of grief, in the aftermath of everything we couldn't have known, I am stuck in stage two, anger. Anger "becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them," Kübler-Ross said.
Across America, or at least across Brooklyn, where I live now, posters of women defeating breast cancer with a smile and a pink shirt adorn the streets, the buses, and the subway cars. The word survivor is always followed by an exclamation mark—the first does not exist without the second. These women are walking for a cure, they're making strides against cancer. They raise money, they walk, they run, and a small portion goes to cancer research, and maybe one day a cure will appear and it will be because of them. The problem is, I don't believe it.
I am sure that many never see the posters, but for me they are everywhere, each one inciting fury. In my head, I talk back. Cancer is so fun. Cancer is pretty in pink.Cancer is arms raised, fists pumping. Cancer is woo-hoo. Cancer is commodified: Revlon, Avon, the women's brands, the brands that care, own this disease.
I feel like each poster is telling me that Julia made the wrong choice. They add to the weight of her loss, as do the supposed words of wisdom from well-meaning friends: She didn't want to heal, she should have been happy to be alive—as if the only emotion permitted after diagnosis is joy.
Julia tried everything except conventional methods. No scalpel, no chemo, no hospital. A healing retreat in Germany. A healing center in London. A last minute jaunt to Australia. These pills. Those foods. Raw diet. Only sprouts. Kombucha.Kombucha cures AIDS, she tried to tell me. No milk. No drinking at meals. No alcohol. Everything in a glass bottle. She moved away from London for the sea, she moved back to London for work. London was so hard to escape. Her tumor got smaller then larger then smaller and I thought and I said: You are so brave. I still think that. But now I also think: Where the fuck are you? Why didn't you save yourself for me?
Were conventional methods the answer? Julia dedicated herself to every alternative treatment she could find, every method she thought might have a chance, offer something she could believe in. Because of my binary childhood, I believed in her and questioned her; I was born on a commune where anything was possible and alternatives were the norm, but I grew up in Michigan's rust belt, watching relatives' jobs disappear. Michigan's stark landscape and the commune's dissolution taught me to back away from anyone who approached wide-eyed with "the answer."
The summer before Julia died, a woman we knew from our workshop died of colon cancer. The woman had done chemo and surgery and wheelchairs and hospice, showing us that there is no math to this, no miraculous equation. Julia and I were at the funeral, she in lavender, me in yellow, her coughing and coughing. What are you doing about that cough? I asked, almost angry. I wanted to trust her to take care of herself, to know that her search for alternatives was far more than a death wish, more than a stubborn refusal to face everything before her. I wanted her to know that even if she didn't have a family of her own, even if her father had died when she was 16 and her mom was dying in Helsinki, she would leave a deficit in her wake.
She shrugged. Shrugged until she learned the cancer had spread to her lungs. When she called with the results, she said, I know it's not good news, but I don't feel like I'm going anywhere.
Oh, Julia, I said, I'm crying.
Later, I had to look up Stage IV. I cried all over Wikipedia.
When I saw her in early autumn—I was living in Geneva, she was still in London—she was as beautiful as ever, but also skinnier than ever, all bones when I hugged her. She wanted to see Eckhart Tolle when he was in town but she worried she wouldn't have the energy. She giddily told me she was "getting downloads from the goddess." I didn't know what that meant, but I trusted it was a good thing. We had talked about feeling closer to spirit in the midst of hard times—I was leaving my marriage, and meditation was getting me through the day. Spirit aside, her cough was worse, and nothing could make it stop—not the water I offered to get her from the kitchen, not the tea she had brewing, not the juices she made us that afternoon. Julia told me that her libido had disappeared, which seemed odd, since she was effortlessly alluring, and always had a man on her arm. I didn't know how to say I was worried, or if I should.
We walked around the block to get dinner, and she told me that a childhood friend had flown over to see her. During their visit, the friend had asked what Julia wanted to do for her funeral. Julia couldn't say. We were living in make believe, incredulous toward the inevitable. I swallowed the adage you never know how long you have, but instead of taking it to mean be grateful for today,it meant maybe Julia can live forever.
When I got back to Geneva, we called and texted, doing the things normal friends do. She was listening to me cry about the end of my marriage, and I was listening to her describe the beauty of her slowing world. She was pausing every few feet in her walks around Canary Wharf, and using that time to admire the splash of sun on the water, the glow on faces of passersby. In our last call we were planning her 34th birthday. It was two weeks away.
I woke on a Monday morning a week after our call, fumbling with my phone to turn off the marimba alarm. I saw a text message from a friend that read, "I'm so sorry about Julia." I scrambled down the ladder from my loft, saying, "No, no, no," to my empty apartment, to myself, to the whole damn world. I was already sobbing by the time I opened my laptop. It was all over Facebook. The dictionary tells me bereft is the right word. I'm not so sure. I wish I'd known not to go into work that day, to stay home while I made the calls I needed to make, but I was scared to be alone with the fresh tear of loss.
It still feels fresh as I face these posters telling me to be happy, to make breast cancer lemonade, to walk in hot pink because maybe, just maybe someone somewhere will discover something that will help someone somewhere else. The definition of abstract.
And is it doable? Is there hope? Is fight for the cure any better than the war on drugs, the war on poverty, ending veteran homelessness by 2015? Why are we always fighting? No one will win these battles. We will have no victors. This is quagmire. This is Vietnam. A publicity campaign. Hope on ice. Take a sip, tip your head back, roll it around your tongue and you might just believe it.
For me, the American insistence on hope has become a burden. It's the smile stamped on tragedy. Not only must you brace for the inevitable, but you must do so with glee. Consider the man who marathons even though he's dying of brain cancer. Facebook loves him into the thousands. We are told there is one way to do cancer: Be brave, soldier on, fight the battle, but do it with a smile. How can you get well if you're not happy?
According to "Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer," published in the New York Times' Magazine in April 2013, of the $472 million raised in 2011 by the Susan B. Komen foundation, the powerhouse of breast cancer awareness, only 16 percent went toward research. It's not negligible, but it makes me wonder what we're fighting for, or why we focus on prevention when prevention is the greatest mystery of all. When Julia found the lump in her breast, she was far past prevention, but the narrative failed her, and I don't think she's alone. In her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenrich devotes a chapter to her experience with breast cancer. Her reaction was at odds with the prevailing ethos of positive thinking, and the Komen community raged at her rage.
I will not walk this year. I will not walk next year. I may never walk for breast cancer. For those who do walk, I realize it might not be all about the donations they amass, or about clinging to impossible dreams. There is community to be found on the road, and fitness in putting one foot in front of the other. Plus, who am I to feel this way, to say these things? I have never had breast cancer. One friend has walked. Others might. That could be good for them.
But not for me. And not for dozens who commiserate, for people who are done with the battle metaphor, done with the ferocity of pink, with the more of us who walk, the more of us survive because it is factually inaccurate, a slogan that will not placate us. We are not a movement. Our grief is not a tagline. We are angry that the people we loved have left us, and angrier yet that they have been written out of the cancer narrative. It tells one story when there are actually so many more.
Erika Anderson is a contributing editor for Guernica Magazine and teaches for the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop and Mercy College. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair,Creative Nonfiction, and Buzzfeed Books, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, where she co-hosts the Renegade Reading Series for emerging writers.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]