—Abbey J. Porter, Editor
When I met Dara Barr, I felt relief. Her pink sweatshirt and easy smile projected an energetic, can-do air. She looked like what she was: a mother and teacher in her early 40s who was accustomed to marshaling unruly classrooms, soothing bruised feelings, and putting Band-Aids on boo-boos. She did not look sick.
But Dara is sick. I met her at Fox Chase when Forward photographed her for the story on page 6 about the emotional aspects of having cancer. As I chatted with her, following along on her familiar route from doctor’s appointment to infusion room for chemo, I considered the phrase “treatable but not curable,” which applies to Dara’s advanced gynecologic cancer. The words weighed heavily in my mind. Dara is close to my age and has three young sons.
A day that had become routine for Dara rattled me deeply. From behind the barrier of a desk, it is easy to become removed from the individual realities of cancer.
I suspect my relief at Dara’s appearance of good health stemmed from the same source as the impulse to look away from people who wear their illness more obviously, in gaunt faces, thinning hair, sallow skin. Facing the reality of their mortality, or of Dara’s, would mean facing my own.
As someone fortunate enough to be living without cancer, I imagine that an invisible, indelible barrier divides me from those diagnosed with lung cancer, sarcoma, melanoma, advanced gynecologic cancer. Even after cancer’s tendrils have reached out to threaten a beloved grandmother and two aunts, I imagine myself to be different.
People in Dara’s shoes don’t have a choice; they know there is no barrier. They know we are not different.
Contemplating a patient’s situation inevitably raises the question, How would I react? My answer: Not well. Not as well as Dara, for example, who throws an annual party to celebrate her life with friends. Who no longer puts off the trip she wants to take, the yoga classes. Dara herself would disagree with my assessment. She is doing, she says, what most anyone would: The best she can.
They say courage is not being without fear, but being afraid and acting anyway. I may not yet have the courage to look fully, with clear eyes, at the uncertainty of my life in the face of diseases like cancer, with its seeming cruelty and wanton unfairness. But making the effort yields valuable lessons. The lesson I take from Dara is to live as well as I can in the time I have, however long that may be.