She looked at her fear and dared to face it.
IN JANUARY 2005, Sophie Van der Stap was diagnosed with cancer. “The cancer reaches from your lungs down to the liver,” the doctor told her. So instead of starting her new semester at university, the 21-year-old Dutch girl matriculated in the oncology ward of an Amsterdam hospital.
Thus began a year of bone scans, IV drips, blood transfusions and chemotherapy. By the end of the year Sophie was given a hopeful diagnosis. Her lungs were clear. She was in remission.
That’s when she met Chantal.
We sit together for the first time at her favorite bar. Chantal laughs and takes a sip of wine. Opposite me sits an optimist—a woman who looked at her fear and dared to face it. She makes me laugh, sigh and swallow my tears. She gives me goose bumps because I can’t let go of the thought that the chair opposite me could soon be empty.
The first thing Chantal did when she was diagnosed, she tells me, was buy new shoes, not caring how long she would have to walk in them, hoping they would lead her to a new life. Shivers run down my spine. I want to fold her in my arms. Not out of pity, but to feel her strength.
Sitting here with her makes me sad. Sad about cancer. Sad about wearing a yellow bracelet.
“Hate to break it to you, but these don’t work,” Chantal says, winking as she shows me her bracelet. She tells me the past tense is something she is afraid of. That her friends will talk about her in the past tense. That
they will grow old without her. I know what she means. Even though things are looking brighter for me now, I still don’t dare believe that time is on my side.
Am I terminally ill as well? Chantal’s friend asks me when she joins our party.
I shake my head, feeling relieved and slightly guilty. Chantal, my new hero, jokes that she isn’t planning on going anywhere soon; she only just moved into her new place, after all. “But I won’t make forty,” she says. Although we share the same sense of humor, my smile feels forced.
She says Sunday is the worst, because that’s the day you’re supposed to spend with your loved ones, and she’s all alone. Her family lives in France. I suddenly feel lucky to still live with my parents. I think about how I could cheer her up. Maybe we could spend our Sundays buying shoes without wondering how often we’ll get to wear them.
There’s a lot we’ve had to give up,
but we have a lot left, too. We have every second, minute and hour of the day. We live for ourselves and for those we love.
Chantal sits beside me while I do one of my last chemos. Ten minutes after I got started she walked in, and now, an hour and a half later, she’s still here. I think we’ve really found each other, whether we’re sharing a bottle of wine or a bag of chemo. She is due to have a scan next week, she tells me. I ask her if anyone is coming along.
“You?” she asks.
Yes, we have cancer and that sucks, but life goes on. Even for Chantal, who six months ago was told her treatment would become a prolongation instead of a cure. I ask her if she has thought about her funeral.
“Cremation.” Rotting away beneath the ground doesn’t appeal to her. “How about you?”
“Burial,” I reply. I’m thinking about those you leave behind. I can imagine wanting to be burned and thrown into the wind, but my family wouldn’t know where I am.
Chantal and I discuss coffins as easily as her latest shoe purchase. And when it comes to men, we tell each other everything. We both know how it feels to be on a date with a guy—after spending three days throwing up or coming straight off an IV drip.
“Cancer bitches,” Chantal calls us. A cancer bitch can still go to parties and even wake up with a hangover. But the truth is, I’ve left most of that behind. These days I meditate, go to therapy, and try anything that might help keep the cancer at bay. Because I don’t want to pretend the danger isn’t still there.
“Rest in peace,” Chantal calls as she leaves to do her grocery shopping. “Have a nice funeral!” I call after her. Chantal gives me comfort. The chances that I go before her are slim to none, however bubbly and healthy she appears now. It’s a selfish thought, but it feels nice to know that I’ll have a friend up there in the blackness on the day I go.
Damn. How lonely she must be.
The doctor puts up the photos from my scan and smiles. The pictures are clean. He listens to my lungs. I sigh and cough and he says everything sounds clear. My tumors are gone.
You can never be completely sure, he reminds me. But it’s good enough
“REST IN PEACE,” CHANTAL CALLS AS SHE LEAVES TO DO HER GROCERY SHOPPING. “HAVE A NICE FUNERAL!” I CALL AFTER HER.
for me. Now I have to wean my body off the meds. I make an appointment with a physiotherapist to get my stamina back up. Only two chemos to go. One more scan. Then I’m free.
The thought scares me a bit. Weird how you can get used to anything. Even cancer.
Now I’m tagging along with Chantal to her chemo. The morgue is on the same floor as the parking garage at the hospital. There’s no way to avoid it.
“Scary, huh?” she says. “That I’ll be down here someday?”
It sure is. With that in mind we walk down the hall toward radiology. My mood is sour. Imagine what Chantal must be feeling.
“Chan, are you scared of dying?” “I try not to think about it.” She pauses. “It’s more a feeling. A constant feeling of panic.”
Still, she’s amazingly relaxed. As if she’s made peace with her verdict. For all the securities that have been taken away from me, I have the greatest security of all, a second chance at life.
When I cross out the fifty-fourth week in my agenda, I am officially done. The nurse hooks me up. Today I get to hold the needle and unscrew the casing. I mess up, squirting the contents all over myself before she can get it into my port-a-cath. Not as easy as it looks, being a nurse.
Later on I take a walk downstairs with my IV. I don’t like it here. Whether it’s my IV pole, my port-a-cath or the wig I wear to cover my bald head, I attract people’s attention and it’s not wanted. I chat with my neighbor about hair loss, ending by saying we hope to never see each other again. That’s the nicest sentence uttered at the outpatient clinic.
The doctor and I discuss my blood values, which are on the rise, and I tell him I feel my energy coming back now that I know the cancer is gone. “So my port-a-cath can be taken out? Shouldn’t I leave it in for a while just to be sure?”
He shakes his head. “You’re better now. You’re done.”
After being unhooked from the IV, I feel fine. On the way home I stop for a coffee. I happily observe the hustle and bustle around me. It all looks and sounds so different now that my last chemo is over.
Chantal and I have a snack on the terrace of a café. I pluck at my pink bracelet. Pink is for Chantal, trapped in a body full of cancer.
CHANTAL TELLS ME SHE’S BEEN HAVING A HARD TIME LATELY. “NOTHING IS FUN ANYMORE. WHEN I WAKE UP ALL I WANT TO DO IS GO BACK TO SLEEP.”
As I work through the food platter in front of us, Chantal tells me she’s been having a hard time lately. “Nothing is fun anymore. When I wake up all I want to do is go back to sleep.” Then she says, “I’ve been having the worst headaches. They keep me up at night. Sometimes weird things happen. My friend Ellen came around last night, and when I went to open the door, I forgot how to turn the key. The same thing happened on the toilet. I forgot how to flush.” “Have you seen your doctor?” “I’m seeing her on Thursday, I’ll ask her then.”
A few days later my phone rings. It’s Chantal. “How’s your headache?” I ask.
“It got really bad last night.”
“Do you want me to come over?” “No, thanks, I’m exhausted. I’m going to take a shot of morphine and go to bed.”
“All right. I’ll call you tomorrow. Sleep well.”
I call Chantal in the afternoon. No answer. I call again and Ellen picks up. “Hi, Ellen, this is Sophie. How’s Chan?”
Silence, hesitation. “Not so great. We’re leaving for the hospital.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
I feel my first tears for Chan, who is dying. In a few weeks? Months?
Complete helplessness. I’ve never felt that before. I arrive at the hospital 30 minutes later. I sit on a bench and cry. You would think that I’d be used to all this by now, that I would know what she needs to hear. But I have no clue.
At the foot of her bed, I watch how she slowly slips away. There’s less and less of Chan, and more and more cancer. Why is it that she’s dying and I’m not?
The Braver One
Two things on the schedule for today: my scan at 9 a.m. and then on to Chan’s hospital, just to be with her, to make stupid jokes that don’t make us laugh anymore.
I slide under the machine. “Hey, look who it is!” the nurse says as she grabs my file, which is about a foot thick. “Love your hair like this.”
“Cool, right? All my own, with a little help from L’Oréal.” I decided to dye my short hair blond and leave my wigs home.
On my way to Chantal’s I pass by the morgue. Scary, huh? That I’ll be down here someday? Chantal’s words still give me goose bumps. What idiotic architect planned this hospital, anyway?
In the chemo ward the women have short hair; some are baldies. I fit in perfectly. Chantal has the thickest and longest hair of them all; cancer has a good sense for irony.
She is lying in bed. Ellen sits next to her. I imagine the loneliness she must feel because she’ll be the first to go. She punctuates my thoughts by puking up her breakfast.
“Show Sophie the magazine,” she says to Ellen.
Her friend hands me a glossy magazine. I turn the pages. A glowing Chantal, with the headline “I have to live this life to the fullest.” Chan and her life philosophy in the spotlight. Cancer really does sell: “Chantal Smithuis is terminally ill. She is expected to die from breast cancer. She wants to give a voice to all those women who don’t make it. And to tell us how, to her own surprise, she is happier than ever.”
I look at the sick girl lying in bed, drugged up with morphine. Some happiness.
She speaks to me in a slow, rasping whisper. “This is the beginning of the end.”
I stay quiet, robbed of words. Ellen goes to get some fresh air. The room smells of chicken broth, in a cup next to her bed. She can’t keep it down. A cycle of swallowing, heaving, and vomiting.
When the curtain opens, a wrinkled, worried-looking face appears. The neurologist. His hand moves to Chantal’s shoulder. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid. Metastases of the tumor have spread to your brain.”
Doctors don’t mince words around here. I look at Chan, the braver of the two of us. She’s pissed off. “Thirtyfour,” she says. “I’m thirty-four.” It’s the first time I’ve seen her cry.
“We’ll have to start you on radiation straightaway.”
“And then what? Will that get rid of it?”
“It’s worth a try.”
“Will it make me go bald again?” “Yes.”
OUR CANCER BROUGHT US TOGETHER AND CONNECTED US UNTIL THE END. I WAS IN
AWE OF HER COURAGE FACING DEATH.
“I can’t believe how fast it comes back. I was feeling so good these few months without chemo and now bam! It’s in my head.”
I give Chan a kiss and tell her I’ll be back soon. I run to the tram, and I look outside the window and cry, cry, cry.
Chantal passed away in 2007. It was our cancer that brought us together and connected us until the end. I was in awe of her courage facing death. Up until her very last day Chantal was full of joie de vivre and her own incredible sense of humor. She would surprise me with each visit. She’d ask about what I had been up to, and joke that she had just come back from a run along the river, or she might be singing lame Dutch pop music.
Even when she was fully paralyzed, she’d always look forward to her bath, which the nurses would fill with rose petals and bath oil. I hated to see her dying; I hated the fact that I had been given a second chance when she hadn’t.
Today I’m 34, in good health, no longer afraid the cancer will return. All this makes it possible for me to look back at my experience. Cancer is not something to be grateful for. Not ever. But I have never laughed as wholeheartedly as when I had cancer and first met Chantal, and later sat next to her as she lay dying. The kind of laughter that brings you to tears and makes you feel alive.
My illness taught me to embrace joy and laughter. But I still have days when I struggle with life. And on those difficult days, it helps me to think about Chantal and all the others who were less fortunate than me. They still console me, as much as they did when they were alive.
When I think back to what I’ve gone through, what strikes me most is that my experience is not so much about cancer but about life. If you change one letter the word “live” becomes “love.” If there’s any message I’d like to pass on, this is it.
Sophie lives in New York. Her second novel, The Possibility of You, will be published this fall by Prometheus.