Emily and I were about an hour into our telephone conversation, gossiping about our lives and the people we know. Work was going well, she said, though she was stressed. Still, she was making a good living. She said she was breaking up with a guy, and it was painful, but there were other things that took more of her attention. I didn't press it because this was one of those great talks, precious, profound and silly, when the hundreds of miles between you disappear and you can hear a smile.
Then Emily said, "I'm trying not to worry about my ex-boyfriend because I'm trying to heal the lump in my right breast. It's twice as big as the left breast."
In our seven years of friendship, Emily and I have talked about our "boobs" many times. But until that moment, we had never talked about our "breasts." I knew it was serious.
I peppered her with questions: What's going on? What do you have? What are you doing about it?
"I'm praying about it," she said.
I said nothing.
Emily said she knows she has something, that she has known for months and that all she has done is pray about it. She said she hasn't told anyone but her 85-year-old mom and her loser ex-boyfriend. She said they are both praying about it. Then she asked me, "Would you pray about it, too?"
Breast cancer is one of our most prominent health issues. Everyone from doctors to B-list actors talks about it. They talk about its symptoms, its treatments, its survival rates. There are telethons and 10K runs to raise money and awareness. By now, every woman knows about the little pink bow. They check their breasts in the shower. If they find a lump, they go to the doctor and get a mammogram. This is 2002, for—well, for God's sake! Women don't just pray about breast cancer anymore.
Not women like Emily, anyway. She is not some New Age breezehead, some homeopathological nutball who pits her faddish herbal homebrews against centuries of Western medicine. Emily is well-educated, runs her own business, speaks several languages, owns four homes and makes heavy financial decisions daily for dozens of clients. She goes to the doctor.
In fact, Emily said she had gone to see two doctors about her breast. She said they told her that her situation is urgent—that she must be tested immediately. But Emily never followed through. I asked why. She told me that she couldn't imagine the pain of a mammogram. I told her she could get an ultrasound—I knew because I had just felt lumps in my own right breast and I got an ultrasound instead of a mammogram because I was nursing my four-month-old son. She was impassive.
We talked on, but I got nowhere. She put up a wall. She said she had a work-related function to attend and that she was late. I thought of all the colleagues Emily would see that night, all the people who would watch her walk into the room and be oblivious to the fact that her days are numbered.
Before we hung up, Emily said she would soon be in San Diego and promised to stop by to see me on her way back to northern California. I hung up, cried and made a decision. I decided that Emily had told me about her breast because she knew I wouldn't just pray for her. She knew I would help her because she isn't helping herself. I resolved not to let her down.
I phoned the imaging center in Newport Beach I had just gone to and explained the situation to Lily, who has been the office manager there for many years. My plan was to take Emily to the center when she arrived for her visit with me. I told her Emily had no clue I was doing this and she might be angry and might never talk to me again, but at least someone in her life was doing something.
Lily listened compassionately to the story. She said she would fit us in whenever we walked through the door.
My dad is a two-time survivor of cancer. He would have been dead in 1984 had he just gotten on his knees and looked at the sky for healing. He went to the doctor. He followed the doctor's advice. But my dad is a man. He did not have breast cancer. That is the difference between him and Emily. And, frequently, that is the difference between life and death.
"This is what often happens when a woman discovers a lump in her breast," said Lily, who was not surprised when I told her about Emily. "I see it all the time, and it is really sad."
My father was a professional drummer and singer when he got cancer of the mouth. Survival required him to have part of his tongue removed, and in the process, a nerve was severed in his neck, and he temporarily lost use of his left arm. The cancer and the operation ended my father's drumming and singing career, but he's alive.
When it came to breast cancer, Lily saw denial in her own best friend of 25 years.
"She felt a lump but waited three months to say anything," Lily recounted. "Meanwhile, the lump got bigger. Finally, she asked me—not a doctor—to look at it. It didn't feel right to me, and I advised her to get it checked."
The lump was cancer. The breast had to be removed.
"But my friend is alive," said Lily.
This got me thinking back to high school, when my friend's mom had a double mastectomy. The woman had known there was a lump in her breast for more than a year but wore a bra to bed to hide the truth from her husband of 32 years—and from herself.
Twenty years later, she's still married to the same man. He apparently doesn't care whether she has boobs. He's grateful he got 20 more years of her.
When I told another friend about my plans for Emily's visit, she was outraged—not by my plan, but by Emily's denial.
"I'm watching a friend die of breast cancer right now," she said. "This woman is not ready to go. She has two kids and a husband. She is fighting for her life with every available medicine known to man. And, yes, she is on her knees praying to God, too."
Emily never came to visit. She shortened her vacation to get back to some family crisis in northern California. When we spoke, I came clean about the doctor's appointment I had made for her. She said she was touched.
But it was clear her denial had progressed. Emily insisted she felt strong, declared she didn't want to be cut on. She wasn't even saying the "C" word.
Is it easier to say the "D" word? Are breasts worth dying for?
What if Emily's problem was lung cancer or a black spot on her face? Most likely, she would have rushed to the doctor. Emily has known about her lump now for 13 months. It's painful, and she has good and bad days.
I want to be the friend to hold Emily's hand during this. I want to grab her and make her see a doctor—who in my dreams will fix her and tell us everything will be okay.
But she's not going for it, so I am praying. And I did another thing.
I took a sheet of construction paper from my kid's room and traced my hand on it. I cut out the hand and sent it to Emily. I told her to hold it when she needs to. The real one is available, too, if she needs it—she knows that.