My grandma and I were best of friends. We had so much in common. We loved Jason Bateman, a good drink and meal, to travel, and going to live theater.  After I was diagnosed with cancer we suddenly had even more in common. We took a lot of the same medications. We had the same aches and pains.

The summer before she passed I knew she was unwell. She started to slow down. Our once jovial lunches out to our favorite restaurants became quiet visits at her house in between my ongoing medical appointments. Her list of aches and pains became longer, while mine was shortening as I had reached the golden status of no evidence of disease. We never explicitly acknowledged what her declining health might mean, the emotions it would bring up in me.

She was holding on to reach the age of 90, an accomplishment that less than 25% of Americans achieve. At the time I didn’t understand why she was doing this. It didn’t match what she had always told me about getting old, which was how hard it was to watch your friends get sick and die. The extreme burden of being the sole keeper of memories made with loved ones now passed.

A few days after her 90th birthday, my seemingly healthy grandmother had a sudden traumatic cardiac event. She died a week after that event, 13 days after her 90th birthday. I was left filled with grief while being met with platitudes such as “she had a great long life” and “she did it her way” or “she stayed out of a nursing home like she always wanted”.

This week, almost 500 days since my beloved grandmother’s passing, I’m bearing witness to a different kind of death. A type of death I’ve become all too familiar with in my young 35 years on this earth: the long, painful death of someone being taken too soon by cancer. If you’ve been around in the cancer community for any length of time, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

That friend you make who was diagnosed around the same time as you. Whose treatment should have worked just like yours did. But for some reason theirs did not. They go on to second and third line treatments, posting promising updates and going on amazing trips around the world, attempting to fulfill bucket lists while holding on to hope that they are the one in a million whose failed treatment will somehow work.

But slowly the posts become less. Eventually months later, they post a photo of themselves connected to many machines and tubes, looking like a small fraction of themselves. They say how treatment is no longer working and there aren’t any options left. They are going to look for a clinical trial as a Hail Mary. They haven’t given up hope yet.

Finally a loved one takes over their posting, stating that the cancer patient is less lucid now but isn’t in pain, how all the loved ones are gathered around their bedside holding vigil and praying for some miracle. A few days later, the final post, that your young friend, of only 30, has died. Taken much too soon from this world.

In my dear friend’s passing I finally realize why it was so important to my grandmother to live to 90 and the lesson she was teaching me about old age. In my young cancer friend’s passing I’m left with a painful yet beautiful burden. I’ve become the keeper of the memories between my cancer friend and me.

Like my grandmother, I promise to carry the memories with me for another 30 to 60 years. I’ll go on to live a full and adventurous life in your honor. You will not be forgotten. Even after all our other cancer friends are gone, I’ll do my best to live to 90 like grandma, and remember you. 

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