"It's cancer," Shirley said.
She'd carefully performed monthly self-examinations and had yearly mammograms. Shirley knew she had breast cancer before the doctor confirmed it. She discovered the lump herself, but the mammogram didn't detect it. A month later, she felt intense pain in her right breast. A further visit to the doctor and an ultrasound confirmed she did have stage IV breast cancer.
Shirley reminded me that her father, and more recently her only sister, had died of cancer. So had a number of cousins and an aunt. That placed her in the high-risk category. Years earlier, she'd tried to make a joke out of it by saying, "In our family, we grow things—internally."
After she finished telling me the details, both of us cried, hugged, prayed, and talked a little, but neither faced the real issues that troubled us. Her cancer was invasive and had spread into the lymph glands. Shirley would have to undergo a radical mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. But what if …? I stopped myself from finishing the thought, even as I fervently asked God to spare her.
I tried to be supportive—and that meant I pushed aside my emotions. To face my fear of losing Shirley seemed selfish. She was the one who hurt, the one whose life was in danger, and I needed to focus on her.
I tried to come across as brave and self-assured. I didn't realize that I cheated Shirley out of the opportunity to see my turmoil and to share that with her.
"You have to open up to her," my best friend said. "She needs to know you're also hurting. She needs to know you're scared, and she needs to see your vulnerability."1