For one caregiver, supporting her diagnosed friend also means supporting herself
Ashley Johnson shares how being vulnerable made her a better friend and caregiver during her friend’s cancer experience.
From the moment we met, Roberta “Bobbi” A. Albany welcomed me with open arms. It was a warm fall evening, September 25, 2013. Meeting her was happenstance, as I was just trying to put myself out there, trying different things to keep me interested in working out. I figured, “I like group classes, why not try a group meetup…with some strangers.” I had been just watching the posts in the “Black Girls RUN! Philadelphia” (BGR!) Facebook group and finally had the nerve to put a little post out there to express my excitement about meeting up. I thought I had a few weeks to actually do it, thinking, “Eh, no one will respond,” but sure enough, there was an excited response about meeting me at their next meetup. Before I got to the Plymouth-Whitemarsh high school track, I was thinking, “I can’t even run.” But I went anyway. I received a warm welcome from a very hugging group of women and followed along as Gina, the coordinator, led a stretch and warmup before everyone moved something for the remaining 40 minutes or so. In these meetups, there is no woman left behind. While we warmed up at our own paces, we all stuck around until the last person was finished. Then everyone was off, getting their run in. I walked since I had not run in years—it was never my favorite thing to do. I was just so grateful to be there, moving my body, trying not to take my health for granted. Bobbi came up to me, with the warmest smile (if you know her, you know) and told me she’s going to run a few laps and then walk with me. She hasn’t left my side since that night.
Fast forward to December 2013, Bobbi and I had our routine down. We would meet on Wednesday nights and warm up with the group. Bobbi would run her laps, and when she was done, she would join me while I was walking. Some days, she did not run and would walk the whole time with me. Meanwhile, life was happening for both of us. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, and shortly after, Bobbi was diagnosed with stage IIb, estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. With this shocking news, I could either distance myself from Bobbi or lean in. There was never a doubt in my mind what I would do. After that, when you saw Bobbi, you likely saw me. We continued to grow close, and part of our friendship involved my caring for Bobbi as she started her cancer journey.
Since then, I have watched Bobbi, in awe of her strength and beauty, throughout her diagnosis and treatment. What has kept me grounded as we navigate this journey is her transparency about everything that is happening. If you personally know Bobbi, you know she seldom lets you see her sweat. As her friend, I have always tried to make sure I show up. As a caregiver, my role has not been traditional. While I was not able to be there for treatments and such, I was there to listen, to celebrate the wins, and to be a sounding board on the hard days. For Bobbi, I would do anything within my power to make her day easier. Together, we’re a community, a safe space for her to talk about what she was going through. The pain, fear, small victories, we’ve been through it all. We talked about it, celebrated it, sat in silence about it, you name it. Throughout her treatments, without even knowing it, Bobbi was creating her network of folks that needed and wanted to hear her voice and testimony.
Making time to listen
When Bobbi was first diagnosed, I wasn’t sure what to do or say. I was afraid for her. When you don’t have anyone in your circle who has been through this, you’re mostly met with sympathy, shock, and silence. It still catches folks off guard when I tell them one of my closest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. The questions they didn’t ask were ones I also wondered about: What did all this mean? Was my friend about to die? It’s so difficult to articulate your feelings and state the hard things. Even I never really said these things out loud. I don’t always share how I am feeling in the moment—it’s easier to compartmentalize and keep pushing forward. But, when I’m ready, I take out those feelings and feel ‘em. So I kept my fears to myself; I had to be strong for my friend. I figured my best bet was to just follow Bobbi’s lead. She was navigating new waters and was very transparent about her journey. Her vulnerability allowed me to feel comfortable asking questions, and her candor gave me peace. What kept me grounded was hearing her victories and testimonies as well as seeing her choose to keep pushing forward for another day.
While I know I will not ever truly understand what Bobbi has been through, it became so clear to me, the value of listening. Oftentimes, we feel like what we are going through is a burden, and there is no easy way to get it off our chest. In this case, Bobbi was faced with a cancer diagnosis and very few answers at the beginning. Being a sounding board for Bobbi, I hope, made it easier to face the days ahead. Each moment in this cancer journey brings a rollercoaster of emotions, with no choice to get off this ride. Since we can’t get off, you have to figure out how to balance it all. Bobbi and I enjoy spending time together, catching up, venting, celebrating, you name it. This time spent with Bobbi is my self-care, too. Laughter with a friend is some of the best therapy. To be able to make time and space for each other allows for judgement-free conversations about the things that scare us in life.
Once I started grad school, I didn’t get out to meetups the way I used to, but that hasn’t stopped Bobbi and me from making time. Now, every so often, Bobbi can convince me to go to a meetup. When the weather is nice, we like to take walks, and when there is any reason to celebrate, we do. When I am going through things, she doesn’t hesitate to be there, in person or on the phone. I also go to therapy, journal, and occasionally blog. It gives me a space to just feel my feelings and let it go.
No one prepares you to be diagnosed with cancer and no one prepares their friends. What I have learned over the years is that when you’re diagnosed with cancer your circle of folks vastly changes once you share your news. There are people who lean in and create community and others who distance themselves for one reason or another. When you find yourself in this situation, lean in. Sometimes you have to remind your friend that you are there and ready to help. Other times, you just take the liberties and do what you know will help alleviate some of the burden for them. This quote from Brené Brown’s book Gifts of Imperfection says it best:
“To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.”
Taking time, making space
Life is fleeting, we never know when it is our time. What I do know is, taking the time and making space for a friend who is navigating a journey to establish their new normal is a crucial part of being a caregiver. There’s value in quality time, a good laugh, and a shoulder to lean on. Never underestimate your power of friendship, you could be part of their reason to keep fighting for another day.
I am so grateful for the friendship that has grown from grief. We have been able to hold each other accountable in our healing and brainstorm how to change the world. As Bobbi started to understand the disparities of the cancer world, she has vowed to make a change. When she saw the resources and education that was provided but not always made accessible to other patients that looked like her, she did not want to see that continue. It is well known that throughout this country, equity and access in healthcare is not always in alignment. For lots of reason, the information that is put out there for the general public isn’t always disseminated to poorer communities. For that reason, Bobbi has positioned herself to be an advocate in the breast cancer and cancer community, especially when it comes to the impacts in the Black community. Her focus is to make sure that others understand that there is education, and there are resources available to help when you are given a cancer diagnosis. In the background of all of that, I have been able to help out in different ways. Sometimes it’s a brainstorming session on how to keep creating positive change, other times it’s managing the technical aspects of her passion project, Cancer In the Know. Eight years out from Bobbi’s initial diagnosis and she is way more than just a friend — she is family.