Sometimes you can have a terminal illness and still look good. Or at least, not look like hell. I see this with my friend Larissa every day. She’s got Stage 4 breast cancer that spread to her liver and bones, and recently learned that, after ending chemo and going on hormone therapy, her liver had blown up with tumors again. She’s back on a different form of chemo, and her liver is responding well, with the swelling -- and, hopefully, the tumors -- shrinking. Before she went back on chemo, though, she couldn’t keep food down because her swollen liver wasn’t leaving any room for her stomach to do its job. She lost weight, pounds she couldn’t afford to lose.
Of course, in this weight-obsessed world of ours, being thin is celebrated. So even though her collarbones are jutting out and you can almost see her ribs, everyone says she looks “good.” (And we’re not immune -- we actually joked the other day that it took cancer to help her reach her “goal weight.”)
And she does look good, most days. Because she used to be a model, she automatically lights up whenever a camera (or a phone) is aimed at her. She does her patented model’s head tilt and smiles – no matter how bad she’s feeling. The other day was a perfect example. She’d woken up feeling crappy, fighting a cold and dealing with an on-going bloody nose. A photographer was coming later that day to shoot a “day in the life” segment for a breast cancer research organization. Larissa was less than pleased with the condition of her house and was, as her husband Martin said, “in a mood.” After yelling at her vacuum cleaner because it wasn’t doing its job, she got a care package in the mail. She started to open it and Martin aimed his phone at her, so she could document the kindness of others for this blog. The second the phone turned her way, her scowl vanished and a big smile lit up her face. It was amazing to see.
Another example is the photo above, taken at a Vermont brewfest on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. In the pic, she looks happy, as usual. But not long after that photo was taken, she had to lie down because her hip, deteriorated from both cancer and the resulting arthritis, hurt so much she could no longer walk.
In most of the photos and videos she posts on her blog, she’s smiling and upbeat. She’s putting a good face on what is a very bad situation. When things got bad with her liver, I left my summer job wrangling horses in Wyoming and drove home because I feared the worst. I was truly afraid I wouldn’t make it home before things went south. Thankfully, the cancer in her liver is responding to the chemo and she’s rallying.
But sometimes I tell her she should let people see her when she feels (and looks) her worst. She puts too good of a face on things sometimes, in my opinion. People need to see the reality of cancer, and realize that even when she’s smiling, she’s sick. And scared. And that never goes away.