People Let Me Tell You 'Bout My Breast Friend

There is no playbook for any of this cancer business, so it’s good to have a friend who has been in the trenches

I didn’t like Gail, and Gail didn’t like me. If grown-up life is just high school replayed, the two of us had all the makings of a cafeteria girl fight.

We both had ammo, or so we thought. I played in a band with her ex-husband and sang backup for the woman he’d dated on the heels of their divorce. That had to be a little irritating for her, even though it was ancient history. And then there was the matter of our mutual friend, whom we both considered a BFF. Our mutual bestie talked about Gail constantly, and the shorthand of their 20-year friendship made me insecure and possessive. The final nail? On two separate occasions, Gail and I unknowingly but ever so briefly dated the same dudes at approximately the same time. That was supremely irritating for both of us.

We circled each other at the parties and bars where we inevitably crossed paths, warm and frothy with everyone else, frosty with each other. It wasn’t exactly love-hate, but it wasn’t like-like either.

It was mostly my fault. Scars from my real high school experience, maybe. I’d see her out at a dive bar, listening to one of the bands we both loved. Her leggy legs, shiny black hair, and all her obvious fun-having made me feel squat and freckly and dull. So much laughing and smiling, I’d think, brooding like a drama club castoff. When her friends threw her a surprise birthday party, there were flash mobs involved. I watched it from our mutual friends’ newsfeeds. Who was this woman, almost 15 years older than me, scooping me on the cute single guys and having more fun than anyone?

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Then there was her story, the legend that preceded her. Gail was a breast cancer survivor who’d made lemonade from lemons, the stuff of "20/20" specials. Instead of dwelling on her misfortune, she started a nonprofit, bringing arts and crafts to pediatric cancer wards. She was Saint Gail, and it was all a little too much to take.

I’m not proud of my high school self, but when she finally friended me first it annoyed me, too. She beat me to being the bigger person. Fine, fine. Let’s be friends, Your Holiness.

We laugh about it now. She was one of the first people to show up when news got out about my breast cancer diagnosis. After years of mutual radio silence, she marched her leggy legs right up to my front door and bear hugged me until I wheezed. She officially welcomed me to the worst club ever.

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“You’re gonna be OK," she said. “It totally sucks, but there’s a chance you’ll be even better than OK after this.”

She bear hugged me again, and I forgot I’d ever been irritated by her. And she forgot, or at least forgave, that I might of made out with some guy she liked once.

Gail is the first to say she’s no saint. But she’s been there, she’s seen things, and she’s one of my lifelines in the dark. There is no playbook for any of this cancer business, so it’s good to have a friend who has been in the trenches and knows what to say.

Me: Someone told me my hair won’t grow back the same color after chemo.

Gail: Who cares? We’ll dye it. You should consider purple.

Me: Someone told me to never trust the cancer is gone, even if I’m in remission.

Gail: You could step off a curb tomorrow and get hit by a bus. Next question.

Me: Someone told me chemo will kill me and I should try an alkaline diet instead.

Gail: Cancer will definitely kill you. Let’s get a milkshake before chemo.

I’ve always been a sucker for unlikely friendships. The Dude and Walter. Koko the Gorilla and the little orange kitten. Rachel and Monica. Gail and I have our own little friendship by fire. Maybe it was inevitable, but now cancer has made it crucial. She drives me to medical appointments and fields my late-night chemo freakout texts. I help out with her nonprofit a little, and I’ve enlisted my entire extended family to find her a nice guy. I still play music with her ex-husband and still harmonize with the ex of her ex, and it’s all good. Nothing to see here, get back to class.

If life is high school, we’re doing a better job this time around. She’s a hybrid—part homecoming queen, class president and band geek—and I’m the new chick in a goth phase she’s taking under her wing. Cancer’s a bad bitch, but together we are way badder.