Her funeral was Sunday. Ironic, I thought. It’s October. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The very evil that stole her years. Sixty-three years young. A 40-year veteran nurse. A wife. Mother of four. Grandmother of two. My friend.

For close to ten years, we wrestled through tough parenting seasons together. Sat through chemo appointments together. Talked about death and life together.

But Sunday I said “goodbye.” For now.

Yes, it’s October. That’s why today I offer you a peek inside the brutal and beautiful cancer-survivor’s story. Not only in honor of my friend and other breast-cancer survivors, but for the hundreds of men, women and children I’ve met who dare to live in the middle of disease, whatever its form. These are the hard-earned truths so many of them need you to know:

The fear is real. I may put on a brave face, talk strong about “fighting” and “living.” And I mean it, every word. But don’t let my determination to survive fool you into believing I don’t have sleepless nights. The fear chokes. Not every moment, and not every day. But it’s a real struggle, one that can paralyze. When it does, I can’t eat, can’t focus, can’t remember the peace of the day before because of the plague of today’s “what-ifs.” Be assured, I’m fighting it. I’m clinging to my faith and the love of a God that will not fail. Even so. The sting of death is real and it is powerful. Otherwise you and I wouldn’t need a Savior who came to conquer it.

Please, don’t take it personal. When I don’t reply to your text. When I don’t return your phone call. When I don’t remember your birthday or favorite color or that date we scheduled weeks ago but I failed to keep. Please. It has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with this elephant that has taken up residence in my life. I aim to shrink it down to size, to regain a healthy perspective. But it’s a work in progress. Please know I’m not mad or offended. I’m simply overwhelmed. Treatment may be done, but the real battle has just begun.

I am more than a disease. As I’m struggling to see beyond the elephant, I’m asking you to see beyond it, too. The truth is I need your help. Please ask me how I’m doing, of course. Ignoring the reality of doctor’s appointments and scans and unknowns won’t change any of it. But help me by refusing to allow cancer to become the sum-total of our conversations. I need to know you see more in me than a disease. So let’s watch a comedy and laugh until our sides hurt. Let’s talk about our kids, our husbands, our jobs, our dreams. Maybe we could take a walk, go to a ballgame, discuss a book. You know—all the things we did and discussed before cancer. By the way, if I say “no” or “not today,” please don’t stop asking. I need to know cancer won’t rob me of you, too.

When cancer takes someone I love, I feel it to my bones. Death feels different now. Heavier. Holy, even. Now that I know it could happen to me. Now that I’ve had a sampling of the suffering one faces in the final days of a dwindling life. I know. How I wish I didn’t! As much as I want to go back to my pre-cancer ignorance, I can’t un-know the truth. That means when our mutual friend dies of cancer, we both weep and grieve. But I feel it differently, in a way that makes me hurt, down to my bones. It could be me in that casket, and I know it.

Grace and goodbyes matter. It may sound like a small thing, a silly thing. But I don’t want to leave anything unsaid. I can’t. A “next time” may never come. That’s why “I love you” and “goodbye” are necessary each time we’re together. Disagreements will still come, I know this. Cancer doesn’t make me or you any less human. But do me a favor, okay? Don’t walk away mad. Don’t ignore me or disregard me or let today’s frustration poison tomorrow’s relationship. Instead, let’s settle matters quickly and live in a deep ocean of grace. It matters more than you know.

I’m not the same person I was before. Time heals, yes. But time doesn’t erase the scars. The doctors say five years is the magic mark. If I make it cancer-free for five, I’m home free. But I know better. All of us who’ve been there know better. I may live to eighty, but I’ll carry the evidence of this season for the rest of my life. It’ll send shivers up my spine when I drive past the doctor’s office. It’ll upset my stomach when a twinge of pain convinces me “it’s back.” Cancer gives two unexpected gifts: (1) a haunting awareness of the fragility of life and (2) a weighty determination to enjoy it. That means I’ll dance again, no doubt. But I’ll always do it with a bit of a limp.

What Cancer Survivors Need You To Know

If you’re a cancer-survivor or have walked closely with someone who is, what insights would you add to this list? 

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