Life Before Cancer
For the past 12 years, through one divorce (mine), two boyfriends (hers), the raising of our sons (two apiece), and several cancer scares (my breast lump, her unexplained bleeding, my suspicious moles), the single most stable thing in my life, and in the life of my racquetball partner, Julie, has been our twice-weekly game. Doing this one thing requires detailed knowledge of each other’s schedules: how early and late it’s okay to call; when either of us is going away; the blackout dates when our other obligations — tutoring kids (her), deadlines (me), therapy (sometimes her, sometimes me, sometimes both) — make us unavailable to play.
Julie is often my first call of the day. So I wasn’t surprised, one Tuesday last September, when she phoned at 7:30 a.m. What did surprise me was what she had to say. Not her usual breezy, "I booked court four for five o’clock," but, "I’ve been on a treadmill for the past few days."
Julie, on a treadmill? Had she found another workout? I reminded myself that thanks to a combination of whining ("I’ll die if we don’t play this week") and bribery ("I’ll pay for your parking, I’ll have your racquet restrung — just don’t stop playing with me"), Julie and I had weathered threats to our commitment before.
"A treadmill?" I repeated. For years, Julie and I have been shaking our heads at the iPod-wearing people getting nowhere fast on their treadmills and StairMasters. The two of us would share a satisfying hit of healthier-than-thou self-righteousness every time we wove between the rows of these whirring dervishes outside the racquetball court. Was Julie abandoning me, racquetball, our years together, for a machine?
"A treadmill of medical tests," Julie explained. "I have breast cancer," she said, and quickly added in a confident voice that defied grief or pity, "They caught it early. I’m going to be fine."
Not Julie, I thought. My mother had a mastectomy 30 years ago. My best friend had one 10 years after that. Both of them, and most of the women with breast cancer I’ve known, are alive and well. But Julie is someone whose well-being I count on for my own.
Assessing the Opponent
Since we met at our gym’s racquetball challenge and started playing together — first sporadically, then in three-ways and doubles, eventually monogamously — Julie and I have had our issues. I don’t like her sneaking up behind me when I serve. She doesn’t like my hogging center court. There’s a harshness between us when we play, a competitive streak that carries over to our breathless, ruthlessly honest between-game talks. I’ve never liked her bugging me to stay out of the sun. She’s never liked my criticizing the men she dates.
Although we have a lot in common — I’ve written books about what’s wrong with the public schools; she’s spent her life teaching in them, trying to make them right — Julie and I rarely spend time together off the court. Still, we share a strange sort of intimacy. When she retired from teaching, I went to the party. She came to my wedding and to just about every local book reading I’ve done. I see her more than I see my close friends. The advice Julie gives me while we’re stretching or toweling off is some of the best I get. Julie is someone I care about. Someone, I realized in that moment, I love.
"Of course you’ll be fine," I reassured Julie, and myself. As she filled me in on the details of her treatment schedule, I remembered the months it took my mother to get back on the tennis court after chemo; the years it took my best friend to recover from radiation. Selfishly I thought, "But what will I do without you until you are?"
"Before the surgery," Julie said, "I want to play as much as we can." As much as you can, I knew she meant. As much as you will.
BC (Before Cancer), Julie and I played on Tuesdays and Thursdays at five p.m. I held us to that schedule with the nonnegotiable rigidity of the control freak that I am. AD (after diagnosis), relieved of my delusions of predictability, my priorities were reordered.
"We’ll play whenever you want to," I said. Julie didn’t know what the doctors would say after they removed her tumor. So neither of us knew, as we played our last game before her surgery, how long it would be till we whacked that little blue ball around again. I envisioned our postsurgery exercise regime: taking slow, shuffling weekly walks around her neighborhood, probably for the next six months or more.
If she has done any shuffling, I haven’t seen it.
"Let’s try a gentle game today," Julie said, a week after her lumpectomy.
"Are you sure?" I asked, terrified that I might hit her with the ball, that she’d open her incision or that she’d waste what little energy she had on the racquetball court.
"Positive," she said.
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?"
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.