To Jan
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© 2001 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

"We love us."
Jan Coast, six months before her struggle ended.
Hello Jan.

It's been over a week since you left and yet it still doesn't seem real. Surely you're just travelling the country, as you so often do, and soon enough you'll be on the phone asking to talk to Kara, chatting for an hour, planning to show us photographs. And telling how the golfing was.

But you're not travelling anymore, at least not here. And you won't be chatting with us, and we'll have to wait to hear how the golfing is.

Breast cancer always seemed so abstract. We all read about how X number of people are hit by it, how Y number don't survive. We see the ads, we see the pink ribbons. Yet somehow, it all seems abstract. They're numbers, they're ads, they're ribbons. They're not people.

The funny thing with breast cancer is that survivors don't appear as though they had been fighting for their lives. We all walk right by cancer survivors every day without knowing it. This makes it harder to appreciate the severity of breast cancer. Keeps it abstract. For all our talk of being compassionate people, the truth is, to a large extent out of sight is out of mind. We have a tough time thinking about our bodies self-destructing from the inside.

I didn't know you the first time you were diagnosed with breast cancer. Kara was only a child, a child who was asked to help be mommy for her younger sisters while mommy fought for her life. You were all of 29, barely older than I am now. It is hard to imagine wrestling with cancer, trying to persevere against a disease hellbent on killing its host at such a young age that puberty would have been a midlife crisis. But you did persevere, you won, and Kara still had a mommy.

Yet it came back. By this time I was dating Kara in college, and I had an outside view of your battle with breast cancer. I remember when Kara heard the news, I remember how long she cried. But more than that, I remember how everyone believed, fully, that you would survive again. I remember the effects of chemotherapy, I remember the surgery. I remember the wigs and the hats hiding your head, because the treatments took your hair away. But I also remember that you still smiled, you still golfed, you still believed it was only a matter of time before you won, and the rest of us believed with you. We hated to see what the treatments did to you, but we knew you would survive. And you did.

The crushing blow came last August when we found out the cancer was back for a fourth time and had metastacized, attacking the rest of your body. Now I was married to Kara, so I had a ringside seat to the destruction caused by cancer. This time there was no denying that your chances of survival were remote. But you soldiered on without complaint, beginning treatment and hoping for a miracle. We hoped with you. You still travelled, still golfed, even as you started to lose weight. Yet, somehow, the idea that you could be dying remained abstract, a medical fact, something to be read about, not something to witness.

Even as you lost more and more weight, we kept hoping the treatments would work better than expected, the cancer would enter remission.

Two weeks ago there was the call from your husband. Morgan sounded distressed that Thursday, and urged me to find Kara and go to Wheeling. Morgan never sounds distressed. I hoped for the best but I feared the worst. Kara and I got there six hours later; you were on oxygen and floating in and out of sleep, seemingly at random.

When you were awake, you were still Jan, still so happy to see everybody, showing us all how the machines worked, making plans for next week, next month, vacations and golf as always. We truly hoped you would be able to fulfill your plans, but honestly, we were concerned.

By Saturday morning it was clear that you wouldn't be with us much longer. I'll never forget how you struggled up from your bed to give Morgan one more hug. How you said a few words to each of your daughters and sister and friends. How you valiantly tried to stay with us, each breath a ragged battle as the cancer caused your own lungs to slowly drown you. Around 10 am you fell asleep, and at 5:10 pm, cancer won, stealing the life from a person who appreciated the gift in a way that few can match.

The viewing and funeral brought an outpouring of community support, the likes of which I will probably never see again. The number of lives you touched is phenomenal. And though the occasion was sad, you once again brought people together. Friends and family who hadn't seen each other in years were reunited. Hundreds of people came to say goodbye to you.

We brought your father to the funeral. His Alzheimer's is progressing; anything beyond the last 10 minutes is in "Cloud Number Nine." He didn't recognize you in the hospital, but he knew you here. Your father, the ultimate stoic, was crushed from sorrow. No doubt he couldn't remember why you were there. He fell to his knees and cried. After a few moments Aunt Barb helped him to a chair. We weren't sure whether he should be a pallbearer, but at the church he pushed his way to your casket and grabbed on. He always wants to help, and he was going to help you by God, even now. By lunchtime the morning's tragedy was back in Cloud Number Nine, and you were at work.

But, Jan, I'm not on Cloud Number Nine. And as I watched your young and beautiful daughter, my wife, kneel and say her final goodbye to you, I wished you were still with us. Because breast cancer doesn't seem so abstract anymore.