September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Wow. I can feel you losing interest.
Ok, how’s this: I had a brilliant, sparkling, insanely talented, kind, magical friend and Ovarian cancer stole her from me. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, being more interested in a person than a disease. People do not like to hear about ovarian cancer. While she was sick, and after, I posted things on Facebook about her and her family, and pictures of the two of us. I also posted statistics and graphics from the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and The Mitchell Cancer Institute, where she was treated. The pictures and stories would get “likes,” comments of hope and support, and private messages asking how I was, how she was, while also promising prayers and offering well wishes. The graphs got maybe one or two weak “likes.” Yet, the majority of my Facebook friends are women and while Breast cancer gets so much well deserved attention, gynecological cancers get significantly less.
I met Nicole Teague in college and I heard her sing before I heard her speak. We were both auditioning for a musical and she sang something from the show we were auditioning for. My first instinct was to dislike her, out of jealousy and intimidation, but after 14 years of friendship, I don’t know a soul who could ever truly dislike her. She was one of “those people.” Anne of Green Gables called them “kindred spirits” and try as I may, I can’t think of a better way to say it. Before I met Nicole, I was sullen and closed off, but she almost seemed to accept that as a challenge. We forged a friendship very quickly and I poured myself into her in a way I had never done before, or since. I feel terrible saying that because I have awesome life long friends and cousins and two incredible, wonderful sisters. But she was the platonic love of my life.
I really never could describe the grace with which she approached death. To most of us, it’s an abstract concept, a distant, far-off event. The traditional “bucket list” is a fun thing, even the name, implying “Things I will do before I kick the bucket,” is filled with whimsy. Nicole created her bucket list knowing that she had a limited amount of time to fulfill it. As a result, it was at some points a kinder, simpler list. She had the obligatory desire to climb Machu Picchu, of course (don’t we all?), but she also wanted to have red hair – a very simple wish – and take her two wonderful daughters somewhere on a plane. She wanted to travel to Italy, but cancer stole that from her too, she was too sick to be away for that long. She wanted to jump into the Fairhope fountain with all of her friends (what, were we going to tell her NO?!) and we did that. She wanted to ride a Segway and ride in a police car, and she did those, too. She had wanted to run a full marathon since before she was diagnosed, but was far too weak and in pain from the chemo, so one day in January 2013 my husband and our friend Dane each ran 52.4 miles- one marathon for themselves and one for her.
There was also a second, unspoken bucket list. One entry involved spending time with her friends. At both of the hospitals she spent time in, her room had to be arranged so that it would be near a waiting room – because she had so many visitors, there had to be space for overflow. Someone would be appointed door monitor and retrieve people now and then from the waiting room (“Nicole will see you now”) like at a doctor’s office. Another item on the list was arranging things for after she was gone. The last time I spoke to her coherently, she was adding and figuring (she was excellent at Math) on a list of bills. She compiled a checklist for her husband with important facts and numbers for him to be able to conduct the business of life without her. Because not only did he lose his wife, he lost his team captain.
She planned her own funeral. She and Dane compiled a perfect slide show, selected hymns and chose her flowers. She very quietly wondered out loud to me one day who would be able to speak about her at the funeral. I was dizzy as I responded. I could. She called my husband and asked him to be a pallbearer, the way another woman her age may ask someone to be an usher at her wedding. He was honored beyond words.
But the most important item on Nicole’s unofficial, unspoken bucket list was her daughters. She read the Harry Potter books with them. She sat on the couch and watched Barbie shows on Netflix with them (a saintly task, as anyone with young girls knows). She painstakingly wrote both of them letters for major events in their lives (turning 13, starting high school, wedding day) that she wouldn’t be there for. She quietly hoped that her younger daughter would be baptized while she could be there; one day, during a simple, mother-daughter conversation, she indicated that she was ready, and Nicole was able to see her baptized.
Nicole had achieved most of the most important bucket list items before she even made the list, and far before she was diagnosed with cancer. She met, fell in love with and married a man whom she doted on and adored, had two brilliant, healthy girls, secured many steel-strong friendships, completed a bachelor’s degree, lived in her dream town, performed in many plays and countless church services, traveled to France, England, Mexico and Scotland, lived all over the United States, and was lucky enough to have two incredible, wonderful sisters (hey, just like me!).
She also did something she didn’t realize. She made people better. She scoffed when I told her, but when I am faced with certain obstacles in my life, I try to do what I think Nicole would do. When meeting a new person, I’d like to give a half nod and smile (I may still do that, now and then) but would Nicole do that? No! She’d introduce herself, flash her bright smile and make that person feel like one of the most important people in the world. So, that’s what I try to do. One day, sitting on her couch, I mentioned that someday I wanted to volunteer at the Reading for the Blind radio station. She gestured to my phone on the coffee table and said, “You have a smart phone! Go to their website! Email someone right now!” So, I did.
This is difficult for me to discuss, because we only talked about it a few times, it was too hard. You see, with Ovarian cancer, early detection is nearly the only chance for survival.
It’s so easy to say, “This is an older woman’s problem. I’ll worry about this when it’s time for my hysterectomy,” but Nicole was diagnosed at 34. That means she started having symptoms at 33. By anyone’s standards, she was a very young woman. The signs are so subtle. Feeling full after not eating much, abdominal discomfort, bloating, frequent or urgent urination. It’s come to light recently that many women with Ovarian cancer used talc products, so please do not allow anyone you love to apply baby powder to their “bathing suit region.” Research is being done at the Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile, Alabama to develop an early detection test- which is absolutely essential. One in 75 women will be diagnosed with Ovarian cancer, if they detect it early, their five year survival rate is 90%. Nicole was diagnosed on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 and died Tuesday, September 9, 2014. I’d have been thrilled for 3 more years.
She did so much in the short time she had. Truly. She softened the heart of this hardened grump and she made everyone love her without trying at all. She took chances, put her neck out, went for the big part, volunteered from the audience. I miss her every moment of every day and September has its own special sting for me. I’d be willing to bet that if you have ovaries, there’s someone who loves you who wants you to pay attention to them. And I’ll also bet that if you don’t, you love someone who does. Please know the signs, educate others, like NOCC and The Mitchell Cancer institute on Facebook, wear TEAL for ovarian cancer awareness in September (or purple, for all gynecological cancers). And tell your loved ones how you feel, every day.
I complimented a new acquaintance on her coffee mug the other day, it was covered with rolling pastures and hills. She thanked me, and said that someone had given it to her because it reminded them of Italy, and she always said that heaven was just like Italy. I think I startled her with the exuberance of my response, because I yelled, “Score! That’s one more item down, then!”
*I mentioned Dane briefly, but his role in Nicole’s illness was not brief at all. To learn more about him and Matt, her husband, please read Matt’s words at: http://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a34905/matthew-teague-wife-cancer-essay
*Nicole wrote her own beautiful entry on her bucket list, the tangible one. You can read her lovely words (and see her lovely face) at: http://baldisbeautifulcampaign.blogspot.com/2013/09/nicole-rolin-teague-terminal-stage-iiic.html
*If you want to help fund Ovarian Cancer research, consider donating to the Mitchell Cancer Institute at: http://www.usahealthsystem.com/makeagift
Don’t forget to Pin this to your Bucket List Board!