I met Julie in Dallas, Texas at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Affiliate Conference in 2000.She was the current Race Chair and a founding board member from the NC Triangle affiliate. I was Operations Chair for the Race for the Cure(R) and a founding board member of the NC Triad Komen Affiliate. An instant connection was made. Neither one of could have imagined that a life-changing bond of friendship would be born at that moment. When we returned home, two Affiliates and two cities apart, we began to develop a deep and abiding friendship to which time and distance would prove to be no obstacle.
What initially drew us to one another was our deep and committed passion to the fight against breast cancer. Julie, at the time a six-year breast cancer survivor, became not only my best friend, but my mentor and my inspiration; my hero. She was a constant source of support and advice to me as I chaired the 2001 NC Triad Race for the Cure(R). There was not a day that went by that we did not communicate either by phone, email or visits meeting halfway between our two homes. Five years later that still holds true. We talk every day.
A personal experience with the diseaseWhen I first became involved with the Komen for the Cure I did not have a personal experience with someone close to me that had battled breast cancer. I had met many women who were survivors (whose courage and grace fueled my passion and purpose), but really had no idea what it was really like to fight this terrible disease. That was until Julie called me in March of 2003, when I was on vacation with my daughter in Florida, to tell me that her routine mammogram was anything but routine. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time. It was devastating news to me. I cannot describe the feeling. My entire body went numb. My involvement with Komen has always led met to wonder what it must feel like to have someone you love and care for deeply (a best friend, a spouse, a daughter, a mother) get that terrible diagnosis. Now that question was answered as I began my journey as a co-survivor. My very best friend, my soul mate, had cancer. I was scared, but determined to be there for her no matter what. I didn’t know what she would need from me or what I would need from her, all I knew was that we needed each other.
Supporting each otherJulie subsequently had numerous doctor appointments, sentinel node biopsy, a lumpectomy, bilateral mastectomies, reconstruction with nine tissue expansions and another surgery to correct one implant. She is still not finished due to complications. The two hours between us was not going to hinder me from being there, but I needed the support and understanding of my husband and children and her husband and two sons. Her family graciously took me in during my many visits. I knew this journey, that as best friends we were taking together, was going to affect our friendship in many ways. I wasn’t sure how, but I figured it would only bring us closer, if that was even possible. Over a span of more than a year, I lost track of the miles I logged between my house and hers and mine and the hospital.
It may be odd to say that we were there for each other because Julie was the one with cancer, but Julie was there for me too. At times it was challenging in ways neither one of us would have thought. It was a struggle at times to understand what each of us was going through. She was fighting for her life. I was filled with so many emotions that at times I didn’t know how to process them. In many ways, it is like an out-of-body experience to sit in the hospital for hours upon hours waiting and wondering how everything would turn out. Julie was always the first person I called when I was scared, but now it was her I was scared of losing. It was difficult to watch Julie battle cancer, to lose her breasts and to watch her suffer through nine very painful tissue expansions. But through it all, it was Julie that taught me lessons of courage, strength and what a will to survive is all about. I learned what isolation is all about and how cancer is isolating no matter how many friends and family members you have to support you, and the loneliness associated with it. But I also witnessed how one can overcome it and be stronger because of it, not in spite of it. We both did. I experienced what it is like to care for someone and feel the indescribable fear of losing them. There were many difficult times shared between us along the way; however, we are convinced that with unconditional love (now I know the meaning), understanding, an open line of communication and patience, all these obstacles can be conquered. I learned that the journey of a survivor and co-survivor are very different, but similar in ways too. One thing is for sure, from the very beginning Julie and I were in this fight together. And we will forever be! It is an honor and a privilege to be someone’s best friend, and more so, to be someone’s co-survivor.
Natalie de la Varre