Tuesdays with Julie: How Racquetball Partners Battled Breast Cancer

For years, we played racquetball against each other. Breast cancer showed us how to play together.

Life After Diagnosis
The Strength to Win
BC, Julie used to win two games out of three. The first game — "When you’re still paying attention," Julie would assert, was almost always mine. AD, I decided, in my infinite wisdom, to let Julie win. It would help her heal to feel that she could conquer all — or at least me. The first time we played after her surgery, it took Julie exactly five points to figure out what was going on, and exactly five seconds to extract a promise that I’d never pull that again.
"Until I let you know otherwise," she said, "I’m fine. Now let’s play. And don’t you dare hold back."
"You’re incredible," I told her after our third game that day, as we stuffed our rackets back into our bags. I’d beaten her twice. She’d beaten me, fair and square, once.
Julie looked at me. She was genuinely puzzled.
How could I explain Julie’s courage to Julie? Eleven months after her mammogram had shown no signs of disease, Julie’s gynecologist had found a lump in her left breast. The lumpectomy revealed a 1.5 centimeter tumor that had spread to one lymph node. Now she was facing the rest of the slash, burn and poison regimen that constitutes most cancer treatment. And Julie was still tutoring kids and ushering at the local theater. She was still playing racquetball, still asking me what was new with me; still listening attentively when I answered. Even in the throes of the disease, Julie was able to step outside of herself, to be on the radiation table when she was on the radiation table and on the racquetball court when she was on the racquetball court. Even with breast cancer, she was still competing.
"Remember my breast lump?" I said. "Remember how freaked out I was until I found out it wasn’t cancer? It was all I could think about until they took it out."
"But it wasn’t cancer," Julie said.
"Are you saying I would have handled it better if it had been?"
"I’m saying that you would have found it within yourself to deal with whatever you had to deal with. Same thing I’m doing." Julie bent her head to zip her sweatshirt, then looked up with a gleam in her eye. "There is one difference between us, though," she said. "I never would have let you win."
As Julie’s course of chemo began, I realized that what was changing between us wasn’t just who won the racquetball game. Now, instead of Julie calling me to set our next match, I was calling Julie to ask how she was feeling, what fresh hell the drugs were wreaking, what I could do that would make her feel even the tiniest bit better. When her hair fell out, I scoured the stores and brought her an assortment of soft cotton hats. When her appetite came back, I brought her a pot of homemade soup. Instead of sitting on the gritty court floor, talking about boyfriends and sons and jobs, Julie and I sat on her couch and talked about oncologists, support groups, and positive visualization. For 12 years, competitiveness had pushed Julie and me apart. Now tenderness connected us. Julie wasn’t my opponent anymore. She had become my hero, and my friend.
"I’d Better Beat You"
"I really need to get on the court," she told me two weeks after a round of chemo had knocked her flat.
"Don’t let me win," she warned as we volleyed for the serve. I beat her three times while she stood stock-still in center court, her bald head gleaming under the fluorescent lights, swaying on her swollen feet, beaming triumphantly. "Even when you whip my butt," she said. "It sure feels good to play."
"I’d better beat you," I said, nodding toward the iPod people on their Precors, staring curiously through the court’s glass walls. "How embarrassing would that be — getting beaten by a bald cancer patient in front of all those fitness freaks?"

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