By Donna Sanders.I would not blame my dear friend Sally if she indulged in a bit of self-pity now and then, but in the decade since we met, I have yet to catch her feeling sorry for herself.
Certainly she has had more than her share of bad breaks beginning with the polio that confined her to an iron lung at age seven. The disease limited Sally’s growth and left her with a slight limp that provoked teasing from her peers at school and summer camp especially when her short stature limited her ability to play sports. Even now she laughs about the time when, dressed in a pristine tennis dress, she tried to leap the net to shake hands with an opponent but crashed into it instead. In high school, the pressures of life were just too overwhelming, and Sally suffered an emotional breakdown. She was sent out-of-state to a private school that specialized in treating young people with a variety of psychological disorders. Two and a half years later, she finished her studies and moved back home leaving her friends behind — an only child who lived her early adult years with older parents in a small circle of acquaintances.
Somehow, this brave lady with a quick wit and a disarming smile managed on limited funds to remain in the same apartment she had shared with her father. Then at age 66, another terrible blow – Sally was diagnosed with Stage IV uterine cancer and told to get her affairs in order.
I didn’t know Sally then but was told later that when news of her situation got around, a number of people mostly strangers to each other, came to her assistance. In fact, on the day of her surgery, some forty friends, neighbors, even hospital staff whom she had just recently met, filled a hospital waiting room to keep vigil. Apparently loud cheering erupted when her doctors, still in their scrubs, came in to announce that Sally not only had survived the surgery but prospects for a long term recovery looked good.
Recently I asked Sally what went through her mind when she first learned it was possible that she had only a short time to live. She immediately recalled thinking, “Why is this happening to me? Am I being punished for doing something I did wrong?” Frightened though she was, Sally never considered giving up without a fight. She remembered how bravely her mother had responded to her own terminal cancer diagnosis – making a list of the things she planned to do before the disease caught up with her.
“My mother said that she had always wanted to go on a cruise and that she wanted to visit Las Vegas, and that’s exactly what she did. Sally’s desire was less ambitious, “I wanted to go to NYC and see a game at Yankee Stadium,” she added.
Sally also dreaded the effects of the chemotherapy that would follow the surgery. Looking back, she explained that, “chemo wasn’t that bad. I went in with long straight black hair like Cher and came out looking like Shirley Temple!” Always the comedian, she said of her temporary baldness, “Look at all the money I saved on shampoo and haircuts!”
Above all, Sally credits her survival to the people who intervened on her behalf following the surgery. She fondly recalls the maintenance supervisor from her apartment complex who brought his two golden labs to the hospital to cheer her up. When it became clear that Sally had no suitable place to live after her hospital stay, a social service worker volunteered several weeks of his own time to secure an affordable room for her in a health care facility; even now, he remains a dear friend and advocate.
Sally will tell you that her life really began the day she moved into the assisted care residence and felt a sense of security and belonging she had rarely experienced before. Younger by 15 years than the average resident, her upbeat attitude and zest for life made her the darling of the place from the start. Our paths first crossed shortly after my mother moved there and Sally dropped by her room to say hello.
Sally was proud to be a cancer survivor and encouraged anyone who would listen to get annual pap smears and mammograms. Fortunately, she took her own good advice because, after being cancer free for five years, her doctor discovered a malignant growth during a routine breast exam and ordered an immediate mastectomy.
By then, Sally and I had become good friends but I could only stand by frustrated as she was forced to confront the agonizing prospect of another cancer surgery, this one, potentially disfiguring.
Fortunately, Sally was still under the care of the same doctors who had seen her through her initial surgery and she trusted them implicitly. After some discussion, she begrudgingly agreed that her wardrobe, mainly sweat pants and shirt with the logos of her favorite teams, would conceal the reduction of her already modest bust line. She also was buoyed by the fact that her surgeon was very good looking and enjoyed telling him so in front of his staff and colleagues.
It is a rare cancer patient who can fill a gloomy hospital room with laughter especially on the eve of surgery but Sally produced enough comic relief to cheer herself and everyone who had come to support her. Yet again, the procedure was successful and after a surprisingly short rehab, Sally was going full-tilt back at the care facility, joining nearly every activity available from WEI bowling to the poetry circle.
Today, some five years since the mastectomy, Sally is still living her life to the fullest. She calls the bi-weekly bingo game at the residence, earning the title of “Bingo Queen,” and is the first person at the door to greet new residents and visitors alike. It is not unusual to see her entertaining visitor’s children of all ages who seem irresistibly drawn to the little white-haired lady with the broad smile and distinctive laugh.
The truth is, virtually no one can spend time with Sally without feeling better for it. Even in the final months of my mother’s life when I’d leave the residence each evening feeling tired and dejected, Sally would stop me just long enough to say something that would put a smile on my face.
Another of Sally’s friends who has been inspired by this feisty cancer survivor, sums up what we both have learned from her – “Enjoy each day, cherish your friendships and find ways to make others happy.”