Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Meeting Maggie

Early in the evening on the night of August 8, 2012, I called a friend of mine to tell her what the radiologist told me – that I had breast cancer. The only people outside of my family that knew at that point were Brianne, Seamus, and Mark and I wasn’t ready to tell anyone else until we had the official biopsy results. But for some reason, I wanted to call Sara and talk to her.

Sara and I met back in 2006 at the wedding of a mutual friend. I’ll never forget when her now husband and our Bowdoin friend, Mike, introduced me to her as we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the ceremony and take us to the reception. Somehow, we got on the topic of Sara’s brother who was bravely battling leukemia (recently, his doctors told him he is cured -- hallelujah!). I remember immediately thinking about how amazing Sara's brother must be to battle that enemy, and how strong Sara and her family must be to be able to function and provide support while someone they loved so dearly fought for his life. And I remember thinking, I need to become friends with this girl. Luckily, I did.

Sara is the mother of two beautiful kids and an oncology nurse in Boston. She is also one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. I don’t even know what I said to her that terrible night although I remember precisely where I was sitting (our porch) and what I was staring at (the wood floor planks) when I said it. And I remember how Sara responded when I told her. Oh my goodness, my friend Maggie is going through the same thing.

Sara told me that Maggie gradated from Bowdoin four years after I did. That makes her 28 years old. She married her Bowdoin boyfriend, just like I did, too. Sara went on to tell me about Maggie’s diagnosis and treatment. She said she could put me in touch with Maggie and I said that would be great. But at the time I was just trying to be nice. I knew I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone who was also dealing with this nightmare. I could barely comprehend my own living hell.

A few weeks before my first chemo appointment, Sara sent both Maggie and I an email so that we could have each other’s contact information. Still, I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t do anything with the email. Neither did Maggie, so we continued to be little more than names on an email to each other.

* * * 

I was so tired the night after my first chemotherapy treatment that I wrote very little about it. I thought the photos told enough of the story for the time being. That was quite a day though and now, exactly two weeks and lots of strange side effects later, I have the time to reflect.

Driving into Dana-Farber on October 10th, I wasn’t scared. I was still so relieved to have gotten the green light the day before because a second week of delay would have been awful. OK, maybe deep down I was a little scared, but I had convinced myself that it would be better for everyone, including myself, if I held it together. As I wrote about in my post from the night before my first treatment, that day wasn’t about me anymore, and for all of those other fighters and will-be fighters out there, I wanted to be strong. And to my own delight and surprise, I was.

Like usual, however, I didn’t do it alone. My Mom, Brian, and Sean were there every step of the way. Brian held my left hand as the nurse inserted what felt like a pretty big IV needle into a vein in my right arm. The nurse explained that she couldn’t numb the area despite the size of the needle. Pain at the site of the IV would be the first indication that my body was responding badly to the chemo drugs, so they needed to preserve my ability to feel it.

Literally armed with the IV -- the entry gate for my Allies -- we then moved back up to the ninth floor of the Yawkey building (known affectionately as, “Yawkey 9”). As we waited in line to check back into the floor, I noticed two girls, or I guess I should say two women, a few patients behind us. I spotted them right away because they were about my age, and I rarely see that there. Whenever I am at Dana-Farber, I always feel like one of the youngest patients. I also spotted them because they were both gorgeous. Especially the woman with very short, post-chemo hair. I wondered about her story. And despite that very few people may believe this, I swear to you, I had a gut instinct that this woman was Maggie.

We sat down to wait for our appointment with Dr. Bunnell, and after the women checked in for their appointment, they sat down nearby. After they got up to go into the infusion suite, I told my Mom that for some reason, I thought that girl was the “Maggie” that Sara had told me about. I had absolutely no reason to think it – I didn’t know the first thing about what Maggie looked like. My Mom looked stunned as she said that she heard the name Maggie while they were sitting there. No way, I said as chills ran down my spine. It couldn't be. So I texted Sara. I asked her what Maggie looked like, and by Sara’s response, I thought this really could be her. Sara then texted Maggie to ask her if she was at Dana-Farber that day. She was.

Through our little triangle of text messages, Sara told me the number of the infusion space where Maggie sat. She told me Maggie wanted me to come visit. When it was time for me to go back to the infusion suite to be weighed and prepped, the nurse told me that Maggie asked for me to come by her room. You’ll be taking her chair when she’s done, the nurse told me. Unreal, I thought to myself.

It also turns out that Maggie and I have, I mean, had, the same type of "triple positive" cancer and we are receiving the same drug regimen. Maggie is done with her chemo and is now onto the Herceptin-only infusion that I too will continue every three weeks for a year once my chemo is done.

Maggie and I only met that one time and we have exchanged a few emails since then. Despite that I barely know her, I’m confident about going out on a limb to say that this woman is someone special. Sitting in that chair, she glowed. In the first few minutes we met, I felt like I’d known her for years. We talked about our cancer and our treatment, but we didn’t dwell on it. We also talked about the nurse practitioner exam that she was studying for and would take the week after (she passed!). We talked about my kids. We joked about boobs and baldness and she told me she would bring me all of the headscarves she used to wear. And when we realized that we’re on the same three-week infusion cycle, we were elated. This wouldn’t be the only time we would bump into each other on Yawkey 9, and we made a date to meet up on Halloween and on the day before Thanksgiving (assuming we both stay on track, which now I so desperately hope I do).

When Maggie was done, I watched the nurse unhook her life-saving Allies. And like I thought years ago about Sara, I thought to myself, I need to become friends with this girl. After the nurses cleaned the room, I took Maggie’s chair to receive my own Allies. I still can’t even believe that’s a true story, but really, it is.

I don’t think Maggie could ever know what seeing her in that chair did for me that day. She’s so modest, she’d probably say she did nothing. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Maggie was my guiding light that day, and I'm guessing will continue to be as I move through my treatment. Because of her strength, I was strong. Because of her smile, I smiled too. No doubt Maggie put so much good karma in that infusion chair, that anyone who occupied it next would have benefitted. I was so blessed to be that person, and I hope I left the same good karma for whoever came after me. 

Since then, Maggie and I became "Facebook friends." As I told Maggie, I'm not much of a Facebook stalker and I have never thought to visit someone's "page" when I became "friends" with them. But I was so curious about Maggie that I did think to find her "Photos" section and click through it. (I even saw that we both named our wedding tables after places on the Bowdoin campus. Seriously!?!) And as I also told Maggie, I teared up as I clicked through her photos. Because Maggie is stunningly beautiful, and she was even more so when she was bald than when she had long dirty blond hair. Those photos showed Maggie loving life through her treatment -- dancing at weddings, hanging out at backyard barbecues, laughing while friends kissed her hairless head. The photos also showed when Maggie's hair started to come back. I cried because those photos told a story of such resilience. And even though Maggie's hair changed as I clicked on, her eyes and her smile never did. In fact, I think they got even brighter.  

I marveled at Maggie's grace and her humor that day at Dana-Farber and in all of her emails since. I am inspired by how she powered through her nurse practitioner program during her treatment, by how friendly she had become with her infusion nurse, and by her positive energy and her optimism. Seeing her in that chair, I just knew that everything was going to be fine. For both of us. 


  1. Wow! What a story. I got goose bumps reading that. Glad to hear Maggie is doing well and you have someone to talk to who has been down the road you're walking. You both sound like such amazing women.

  2. Tara,  I am speechless and still wiping tears away from my eyes after reading this incredibly sweet post. Meeting you that day was truly serendipitous! It was very special and a moment in my life that I will never forget.  I know that day in the infusion room sparked a life long friendship between us, and I am so grateful for that!! I feel so fortunate to have meet you and want you to know how much YOU have helped me!!!! You are beyond inspirational and honestly reading your blog everyday provides me with such strength!  I know that you are touching so many other woman's lives across the globe through your posts, so on behalf of all of us I thank you!!!  Can't wait to see you next week on Halloween and give you a huge hug and have lots of laughs together! I will have the scarves in tow :) 
    Lots of love -  Maggie

  3. KC Maloney (Bowdoin 2010)November 28, 2012 at 1:36 PM

    Oh no! You've made me cry at work! A Bowdoin alumni email pointed me to this site and this post in particular. Thank you so much for sharing this! You're both absolutely incredible. I can feel your warmth through the internet! If you ever want a free babysitter, please look me up!
    Keep shining - KC
    ps. Thanks for the idea about the wedding tables! I'm stealing that one :)