Our one-year gym memberships expired just as Julie was beginning radiation. The doctors had warned Julie that as her treatment progressed, she would become increasingly exhausted. The skin on her chest and back, they said, would burn. If Julie wasn’t going to be playing, there was no reason for us to pay the hundreds of dollars it cost to renew. I worried that even having that conversation could blunt Julie’s secret anticancer weapon — her spirit.
"They gave us a free month, so we can see how you’re doing before we rejoin," I told Julie the day before our memberships expired.
"What have you done now?" she asked, half-horrified, half-delighted. I told her I’d explained the situation to the gym’s director, who’d noticed Julie bald and playing racquetball. The director said it was great and offered us both a one-month medical extension.
"She told me I’m a good friend to you," I said. "As if I’m playing with you to be nice. As if you’re not still beating me half the time."
"One-third of the time," Julie corrected me. "But she was right. You are a good friend."
Playing Through Cancer Treatment
The first and second weeks of Julie’s daily radiation treatments went by. Then the third. Still Julie was playing twice a week. Between games she turned her back to the iPod people, lifted her shirt and showed me the marks the radiologist had tattooed on her chest.
During Julie’s fourth week of radiation, she told me that her legs felt heavy, as though they’d suddenly been rooted to the ground. The next week she was winded before we’d finished our first game. We sank to the floor to rest. "Let’s just play five more points," she begged. Wheezing, she hauled herself onto her feet and kept playing, and won.
"Maybe we should take a break next week," I said. Julie shook her head. And then I realized that racquetball had become Julie’s touchstone: her way to prove the odds and the doctors and every pessimistic prediction wrong.
"I’m not doing so great today," she said when we met the next Tuesday — the closest she’d come to a complaint. "Turns out they’ve been radiating the edge of my lung by accident," she said. "They had to re-mark my chest." She lifted her shirt and showed me a blue X drawn over her heart.
Near tears, I said, "I wish I could wave a magic wand and make this whole thing go away."
Julie pointed to the racquet in my hand. "Every time you play with me," she said, "that’s exactly what you do."
Postscript: Thirteen months out, Julie is doing great: She’s got some tingling in her arm, but otherwise she’s back to her "old" (young) self. Her hair’s growing in black and gray and curly and, as she says, it "has a mind of its own."
Meredith Maran writes for Salon, Mother Jones, and the San Jose-Mercury News.
Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.