With Care and Love: Hand in Hand

Diane Fine kicks off our National Family Caregivers Month blog series with a post about the love and support she gave to her late best friend, Katherine Mendez.

On October 15, 2015, my best friend lost the fight she could never win. Metastatic breast cancer allows for no survivors.

Our journey began in June 2014. I say our journey because that is what it felt like. For 16 months, it would be the largest part of my life. Let me go back…

Katherine and Diane

Katherine and I were getting ready for a trip at the end of August. We were excited because she was near the five-year mark of being declared cancer-free.

Katherine called to tell me she was bleeding. It was thought to be cervical cancer. Though scared, we were told a hysterectomy would cure it. Twenty minutes after the surgery started, the surgeon informed me that cancer had gone into her cervical wall and pathology reports concluded it was the spread of her breast cancer, making metastatic, or mets. I remember sitting there, alone, thinking that I had to call people and tell them she has metastasis. From that to going in with the dr. to tell her, it’s a blur.

We were told that the cancer had become triple-negative (it was previously ER-positive). As Katherine sat crying, frightened, I promised that I would be with her until the end. I didn’t know that would mean sitting for 6-8 hours each week, worrying each time a scan was due, watching her suffer.  She wanted more information but was afraid to look. I joined several metastatic groups that were open to caregivers. One of these was where I met the people who would form METUP.org (I am now on the executive council).

I researched for hours. I needed to find hope. We sought three opinions.  I made sure I could take Katherine to weekly chemo, doctor’s appointments, scans. I stayed with her every other week for two-three nights. Opposite weeks she had her 15-year-old son, so it was done in a day. I live in Massachusetts, she was in Maine. I cried with her but mostly I cried alone or with the people from the support groups. Many friends pulled away saying I was too involved in cancer or should let others (who?) care for her. I felt very alone.

The backstory of our friendship is that we had found each other four years ago.  Katherine and I were good friends in high school and like many we drifted in our 20s. I found her through Facebook. Katherine and I both felt an instant reconnection. In fact one of my fondest mementos is a card she made. Connected by a red thread were pictures of us as teens, with a proverb explaining that we were destined to find each other again no matter time or place. We both thought we’d have many years to continue our friendship. However, that wasn’t to be.

Despite Katherine’s cancer, we had fun. Each week in chemo we’d keep entertained, at times with a competitive game of Boggle. I was privileged to be able to finally get her to Montreal.  Katherine was always a peace and social justice advocate. I had done my share of protesting but she reawakened that in me. She walked the walk in a way few do.

In May, Katherine took a break from chemo because of side effects. The next scans showed the cancer had spread extensively. We were both devastated.  

By August, it was apparent the new chemo wasn’t working. Her platelets were now too low. Severe bone pain led to a two-week hospitalization. She was back two days later and then on to a hospice house. We moved in there for almost a month. I say we because I spent every night, but one, sleeping on the couch in her room.

The hospice was wonderful. Katherine had periods where she was active, lucid, laughing with visitors and me. She rallied several times. Her last rally was her birthday. Friends came, she ate cake and had us push her to the dining room. She was laughing. She had been having periods of terminal agitation. That night was the worst. Staff and I had to physically sit and keep her from ripping out her catheter and trying to walk. The agitation continued till the next afternoon when she slipped into a coma.

Katherine remained in a coma for six days. The night before she died I asked for no visitors because I had a headache. I sat and read by her, holding her hand as it was losing its warmth. At 7 a.m. I watched as she took a breath and then my Katherine was gone. She had been so scared of dying, especially alone. At the end, she had a smile on her face that I swear was to tell me she wasn’t scared anymore and knew I was there.

It was fitting that we were alone in the end. We walked hand in hand and came to a bridge, standing together in the middle. Eventually, Katherine had to walk one way and I the other. My belief is that her essence went to a space where she knows only happiness and peace. I, however, am left in this world to sit with a grief so deep and overpowering. I will never forget my Katherine. I will continue the fight, so that metastatic breast cancer is not a death sentence for those I have come to love who live with this killer.

6 thoughts on “With Care and Love: Hand in Hand

  1. This so much reminded me of our story. My daughter battled metastatic breast cancer for 14 years. Her cancer also went from ER2+ to triple negative. I took my retirement a year before I had planned because I knew she really needed me.

    Dying wasn’t something that she could talk about. One of the only times she cried about cancer was when a young woman from MTV had done a video diary of her cancer, lost her battle. When I mentioned the news story, she began to cry. One of the few times in her 14-year battle, that she sobbed in my arms.

    Once the seizures started, I was advised that it was time for hospice. My family came running. She was never alone that last month. When I didn’t spend the night, my 24-year old grandson and his other grandmother spent the night. My family asked me not to drive myself. All rides were arranged for me to go home for showers and naps. Meals were provided. Maureen’s long time friend came often and read to her. Her favorite music was playing softly and pictures of her godchild where right there in case she opened her eyes. We all said our good-byes and told her that it was ok for her let go.

    Her funeral was a celebration of her life with bright colors and songs of resurrection. Yes, I believe that I will see her again. It keeps me going.

    • I am so sorry for your loss. Very glad though that you had that suport. One of the hardest things for me was knowing I had to be her everythng. Friends were kind but they were mostly her peace movement friends , very sweet but not nearly as close. Her family was not very involved. I too believe I will see her again and others I’ve lost, who knows in what form. I am glad your experience was as peaceful as it could be.

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