…I present to you a profile written about my dear friend Santi. This piece originally appeared in my column for 4L Magazine’s October 2014 issue.
Picking up kids from elementary school typically follows the same pattern: park car/walk to campus/chit chat with mommies along the way/retrieve kids. But I’ll never forget the day that it was all very different. Because on that spring afternoon five years ago, as I approached the school’s back gate, I noticed one of my mommy friends, Heather, had shaved her head. Being one of my more free-spirited friends, I didn’t think much of it. I applauded her bold choice and even joked about how much easier a great buzz cut like that would be. She smiled but we didn’t have much time to talk.
It wasn’t until I arrived home that a wave of panic hit. Was something going on? I called Heather immediately, willing her to pick up the phone. Thankfully, she did. “I feel like such an idiot for joking about your hair,” I explained. “Is something wrong? Are you okay?”
“It’s Santi,” she told me. Santi was a dear friend to both of us, but really more like a sister to Heather. “She’s got breast cancer, and a spot on her liver – stage 4.”
As the wife of a two-time cancer survivor, and co-founder of Cancer for College, a foundation which provides college scholarships to cancer survivors, I am no stranger to the “C” word. But Santi’s news hit especially close to my heart, with both of us having kids about the same age. And I’ve been around the block enough to know the severity of stage 4.
Santi is a tall, tenacious, vivacious mom of two sweet girls, who were fourth and fifth graders at the time. Santi is never without a giggle or a twinkle in her eye. I use the present tense because I want you to know, as you read this, Santi not only survived her ordeal, but has come out with a clean bill of health and a grateful spirit.
With a family history of breast cancer and having lost her 61-year-old mother to ovarian cancer, Santi was always very proactive about her health. “I worked to be pre-emptive in trying to avoid breast cancer,” Santi shared with me. “I was regular with my mammograms and self-exams.”
Still, one day, something just didn’t seem right. She went to see a breast care specialist and underwent a series of tests, all of which thankfully came back negative. But not too many days had passed when Santi felt pea sized lump in her breast during a self-exam, and returned to the specialist, insisting on a biopsy. The results came back as invasive ductal carcinoma, with a spot on her liver.
The fact that Santi was her own advocate was the first step in saving her life. “You have to listen to that voice inside you,” she remembers. “I was glad that I did before my cancer progressed to something far worse.” During this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this is one of the most important messages I hope you all carry with you for yourself or someone you love.
I didn’t see Santi during her treatment, which included chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries. But I do remember one warm evening, when the kids, mine included, gathered to swim in her backyard. Santi wasn’t feeling too good that day, nor were her blood count numbers where the doctors wanted them that week, Heather told me as we kept an eye on our swimmers. But even though Santi couldn’t come out of the house, I imagine she breathed in the joyful essence of our babies; that she could hear bursts of giggles and the sounds of cheerful splashes wafting through her bedroom window, as the kiddos played and enjoyed being nine-year-olds, and she devoted her energy to healing. The innocence of it all made me feel especially dark inside for Santi, and I tried to comprehend the complexity of emotions she must have been feeling, knowing how much was at stake for her and her family.
“Cancer forced me to face my fears, and walk through that door of the scary unknown,” Santi tells me. “But it’s strange — confronting your demons is also very liberating. It gives you the chance to look at your life and to face death; to look at the work that you’ve done and what you’ve created; to think about the time spent here on Earth. I thought a lot about my children and what I had contributed to them. I desperately wanted more time together, but if that was not to be part of the plan, I truly felt at peace that I had set a solid foundation in my girls.”
The first time I saw Santi post-treatment was at that back gate at school, picking up our kids in the fall and standing in almost the same spot where I had first encountered Heather and her shaved head months earlier. Santi was there in the afternoon sunshine with her signature grin, a baseball cap perched on her head. “Shhhhh, hair growing here” the cap announced, with a whimsical line of embroidered flowers underneath. I couldn’t have felt more proud of her, or relieved for her, in that moment. The normalcy of seeing her back into her mommy tasks was profound.
“I looked at this as a chance to grow,” Santi tells me now. “I prayed about the opportunity to grow and learn, and that’s still my philosophy today. I get to do this life and it’s a gift. It doesn’t mean you don’t have down days, that’s human. But it’s uplifting and liberating to have the chance to embrace life in a whole new way.”
Santi is now five years cancer free, a big milestone in the world of cancer survivors. Our babies are now in high school. And whenever I see Santi, standing with her husband and her sweet, kind, loving daughters gathered around her, I am reminded that life is fragile, and beautiful, and messy. We can’t necessarily control the ride we’re on, but we can certainly choose to enjoy the journey, bumps and all.