My Friend, Molly 1974-2017
Molly and I got diagnosed within a few weeks of each other. Both of us about the same age, moms of two young kids, with no history of smoking and otherwise fit and healthy, shocked by a Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis out of the blue. We didn’t know each other, but once I started blogging, her husband Arash realized I was nearby and made the shidduch (match).
We made a date to meet up. I remember it so well. Spring of 2014. I was still deep in the throes of chemotherapy so intense, it left me partially (and thankfully, temporarily) deaf and I had a hard time hearing her over the noise of the blenders and espresso machine at the cafe we had chosen. Even though I couldn’t hear much of what she said that day, it felt so, so good just to be with someone else who really understood what it was like to get such an unexpected and terrifying diagnosis. We were both lucky to have the love and support of many, but there’s nothing quite like the bond that can form amongst patients who share things that non-patients really cannot grasp.
As much as Molly and I had in common, we dealt with our diagnoses pretty differently. This had something to do with our personality types and also something to do with our individual treatment paths. Molly received her cancer’s genetic testing results prior to starting treatment. As a result, she skipped chemo in the beginning and started with a pill targeting her EGFR mutation. The pill worked its miracle almost immediately, and while it wasn’t without some side-effects, she was out of the hospital, feeling well and back at her demanding job at Apple within a few weeks. The whole thing must have seemed surreal to her. I, on the other hand, had spent a week in the ICU, 6 weeks on O2, and was getting 12 hour chemo infusions every 3 weeks. I went “full cancer patient lifestyle” overnight, and a return to any semblance of my previous life seemed so far out of reach as to be laughable. I wrote doom and gloom blogs. Her husband wrote happy ones. I ran around like Chicken Little telling everyone I knew, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” She made an uplifting documentary and went back to work.
And then we switched places. My chemo stopped working 8 months in, and I got to switch to the pill targeting my ROS1 fusion. A few months later her targeted therapy stopped working and she switched to chemo and then a whole series of other things, her chance of beating our horrendous odds diminishing at every turn.
Yet, while I remained stuck in a traumatized mindset, unable to shake-off or look away from this terrifying reality, despite faring quite well (considering), Molly could. She continued leading her daughter’s girl scout troop, while I ceased volunteering at school. She kept having to take leaves from work, but she kept returning to it, joyfully. She loved her family and her career and she focused on them. She told me many times, “I hate this disease, Lisa. I hate it so much.” But then she’d move on, move past that, keep living her life and doing the things that were important to her. I watched and learned.
Back in February this year, I saw her right after she had an appointment with her oncologist. Her scans weren’t great, it was time to find a new treatment, but options were dwindling and she was going to try immunotherapy. Inside, I freaked out. I knew that for patients like us, immunotherapy was a crazy long shot, a hail mary. “No!,” I thought to myself, “Isn’t there anything else?!” But, Molly was calm and positive. Not naive. Not stupid. She also knew it was a long shot, but she was still going to have a good attitude about it and hope for the best, keep living, even keep going to work. She was so convincing that I left that meet-up with her feeling hopeful, in spite of my knowledge about the statistics for this treatment with our types of lung cancer.
Molly’s positivity and drive wasn’t an act. A couple months later, I visited Molly in the hospital. The immunotherapy had failed and she was in a scary downward spiral. The cancer had spread to her brain to such an extent that she wasn’t thinking clearly. Yet, even in that haze, with cancer literally fogging her brain, she spoke of getting back home, back to her life, even returning to work. Eyes on the prize – that’s all she wanted to do, get out of the hospital and get back to living.
I only saw her capitulate once. I visited her at home about a month ago. She was barely 100 pounds, on O2, hardly able to walk. We talked about getting her strong again, strong enough for a clinical trial, something, somewhere, somehow. And she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, with the small voice of a child, “I’m so scared.” It felt like the bottom of the world had just dropped out. “I know,” I replied, “I am, too.” I wanted to hold her, hug her, but she was too fragile, so I just held her frail, birdlike hand and tried my best to sit with her … to sit with this.
I visited Molly a couple times after that, but that was the last real conversation we had. She was progressively more broken down in every way with every visit. She never stopped wanting to overcome this and return to her life, her girls, her career. But the unsinkable, irrepressible spirit that was Molly, was ebbing. In my final visit with her, she was unrecognizable and no longer able to speak. I didn’t even know what to say to her, this tortured, withering physical body that surely could not contain the vivacious, positive, determined woman that was the true Molly. I wanted to say something that would offer comfort, but I choked. No words came. Again, I held her fragile hand and sat with her, balancing on the very edge of the world. Lost, fumbling, I sent up a silent, inartful, but deeply heartfelt prayer that she transition easily, that her family have the support they need to carry on, and that if there is a hereafter, her spirit finds its way back to her true shining self.
Thank you for walking part of this path with me, Molly. I will miss you dearly and hold the lessons I learned from your example closely. May your memory be a blessing. With love, Lisa.