Through the unlikeliest of circumstances, I found myself in a first class seat on a flight to Guatemala this week. They actually served warm almonds in fine china. I enjoyed mine with a glass of red wine and marveled at my glimpse of how the other half lives. It didn’t hurt that the flight attendant was so good looking that he probably moonlights at GQ Magazine. David, if you’re reading this, thank you for the excellent service.
I didn’t have to pay extra for the first class seat; it was a fluke of circumstances, and I had an I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me feeling, which these days, is always magnified. Breast cancer has a way of doing that. I know I’m lucky to be alive, much less sipping wine in an extra-wide seat on an airplane.
Five years ago, an oncologist told me I had three months to live. My daughter had just turned ten and my husband didn’t know how to find – let alone heat up – the lasagne I left for him in the refrigerator. How could it be my time to say goodbye?
It’s hard to believe that instead of being dead, I’ll be delivering humanitarian aid to an impoverished village called Peña Blanca, a rural enclave of about three hundred people where most subsist on a dollar a day. Even in that remote location, a dollar just isn’t enough to buy the calories needed to keep a body healthy. Lots of moms there add lard to their refried beans to stretch the nutrition, and they slice their bananas thin to give the illusion of bulk. For an American like me, it’s inconceivable. I come from a place where many of us drink diet soda in a futile attempt to keep obesity at bay.
I’m traveling with my two sisters, Peg and Jane, and a friend named Corlene. The four of us managed to collect cash donations, medical supplies, educational materials and other essentials that will provide relief for people in desperate need. Many Americans don’t realize that Guatemala suffers the fourth highest malnutrition rate in the world. They need our help.
While we’re there, my sisters and I will drop off a wheelchair, two walkers, all the goodies we can carry, and water filtration systems. Each system will keep one family’s water clean for two years, and that modest gift will free up precious time for girls and women who otherwise would have to wage war on parasites that make people sick.
Twenty six years ago, my sisters and I made a similar trip, our first adventure into the magic of Latin America. We were fresh-faced beauties with no business going to a war-torn country unescorted, but against our mother’s protest, off we went. At the entrance to one of the villages we visited, an army of teenage boys with machine guns demanded five dollars before they’d let us pass. I flirted with one of them, and they let us go. My mom always said there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Since then, all of us have become wiser. We’ve endured the death of our parents, the heartbreak of infertility, the shock of burned down houses, and the ravages of getting old. We’ve witnessed marriage, divorce, birth, death and illness. My sisters helped me survive cancer, and through their love, I knew I could somehow bear the possibility of leaving my child motherless.
When I got my diagnosis, everything seemed hopeless, but that was five years ago, and I’m still here. It’s a constant reminder that life is precious.
It also reminds me that every one of us has two roles: sometimes we’re the giver, and sometimes, we’re the recipient. Cancer taught me not to get my panties in a bunch when my role switches from one to the other. I know now that it can happen fast and that it’s not within my control.
As I close in on my 5-year mark of being cancer free, I find myself wondering about life’s big questions. But what it comes down to is that every moment is a gift. Today, that gift came with warm almonds in fine china served by a handsome stranger while I head toward adventure with people I love.
Life is beautiful, and I’m grateful for the extra time I get to enjoy it.
This piece was published first on BreastCancer-News, a great resource for patients and the people who love them.