Years ago I had a conversation with a colleague as to whether we were “too’ aware of cancer because of the type of work we do. I thought then, as I do now, the answer is yes.
I can quote cancer stats without even thinking about them anymore. How many people are diagnosed each year in the US with cancer? 1.6million. How many lose their battle each year? Nearly 600,000. Can people reduce their risk, or prevent cancer? Yes, by living a healthy life-style, following screening guidelines, and knowing your family history. Yada, yada, yada.
As many times I’ve said or written that information, it took on a whole new meaning 2 months ago when I lost my sister Rita to lung cancer. I still have a hard time saying it, let alone acknowledging she’s really gone. After all, she comes up as a suggestion as a friend to play with in Words With Friends. Her number is still in my phone, as are her texts, which I periodically read. And I can still hear her call me “Janice Lee.” No one ever consistently calls me that – only Rita.
When diagnosed at the end of March, Rita decided she was going to fight hard to beat this horrible disease. She probably tried harder to win that battle then she’d ever had any before. But the cancer was too far advanced when she was diagnosed, and she died 3 short weeks later.
Lung cancer accounts for more deaths in both men and women than any other form of cancer. I hate that Rita is now part of those statistics.
Rita was a smoker for over 45 years, half heartily trying to give it up a time or two at the urging of her family. When I was 21 she was told she was in the first stages of emphysema. I immediately quit smoking, she continued. One by one all of the “sisters” quit smoking, but Rita kept puffing away. I firmly believe she held onto it because it was the one thing in her life she had total control over.
Rita was not what I consider a strong person. Opinionated yes, but not strong. I think she suffered from low self-esteem even though she was one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, and was a very talented artist in so many ways. There was never an art form she tried that she didn’t excel. She was gifted.
Rita possessed a great capacity to love. She loved her family, giving everything she had to her husband and kids. She reveled in their happiness, accomplishments, and the grandchildren were the lights of her life. Clearly she was a very bright light in theirs as well. At her funeral, those lights shown brightly when each grandchild spoke lovingly about their grandma and what she brought to their lives. Rita’s love had enveloped them, and their sadness will take a long time to heal
Was she perfect? No. Like all of us, she could be bitchy, (really bitchy on occasion), complain about stupid things, or want a little more. Let’s face it, who will ever forget her “pfff” when she thought you said something stupid. But there was never a doubt she would be there if you needed her.
It will take a long time for all of us to heal.
I loved my sister, and her loss is an emptiness that will always be with me. As strange as it may sound, Rita gave me the greatest gift at the end of her life by letting me share and help her through her cancer journey.
On her last day, we held hands and shared our love, fears, and even a good laugh when the hospital Chaplain woke her up when he came in the room while she was napping. She looked at him, smiled, and simply said, “not yet.”