I have a friend--I'll call her Jennie--who was diagnosed eight months ago with breast cancer. I learned this very recently. Jennie and I are friends whose worlds overlap only along a very particular seam: we meet and see each other thanks to our dogs, who compete in canine agility.
In the sport of agility, dog and handler are required to navigate a complicated obstacle course with the goal of finishing cleanly; the object isn't so much to come in first or second or third, as it is to get through without crashing into a jump or hurtling into the wrong tunnel. When I didn't see Jennie and her beautiful Belgian Shepherds during the spring and summer this year, I didn't think too much of it. One of her dogs was older, I knew, and needed more care than usual, and my travel had taken me far away from our regular stomping grounds.
In southern Colorado I finally caught up with Jennie again: she's a tiny woman with flowing salt-and-pepper hair, and when she competes alongside one of her majestic dogs it's like watching a sprite racing a Lipizaner. She'd just completed a difficult run when another friend came up to me and commented that what Jennie was doing was absolutely remarkable, considering what she was going through. I was stunned. I had no chance to talk with Jennie privately that day. But the next she arrived at the field wearing a black t-shirt with two big, embossed pink boxing gloves dangling from a coiled pink ribbon. I hurried toward her.
I apologized for not understanding why I hadn't seen her in so many months, and she told me it was all right, she'd kept very quiet about it in the beginning. At first, feeling a persistent pain in her right shoulder, she'd thought it was only a bruise where one of her dogs had jumped joyously up on her. But when the ache didn't go away she'd had it looked at. By then the cancer had metastasized to her bones and liver.
The doctors in Colorado gave her a choice: pursue a fast, radical course of treatment that would help her but make her very ill; or a less intense, more methodical one, that would proceed slowly but could still yield positive results. She chose the second route. It allowed her to keep working, she said, and to keep her hair. Now, after many months, the cancer had receded from her liver and her bones, and only remained in the breast, where it had started. Her prognosis was cautiously optimistic.
"That's wonderful," I breathed out. "But . . . you're so brave. I would have gone for the quick approach. I would have been too terrified to do anything else."
"I was terrified," she said quietly. "But I just wanted to do what felt right for me. I wanted to keep feeling healthy. I wanted to feel and look like me."
"And you're feeling okay now?"
"Pretty good. This is my first time back doing agility. I asked my doctor if I could, and she said go for it. So here I am." She told me she was getting a little winded on course, because the cancer affected her lungs and breathing--but that otherwise the weekend was going fairly well.
We had to part because it was Jennie's turn to run her dog again. I watched her take him through the unfamiliar obstacle course, and noticed her loyal companion was slower than usual. I wondered if it was because he sensed something was different, and was holding back.
"Now, whatcha doin, boy? Come on, come, come on, let's go go go go go!" she urged him. Running.
They crossed the finish line--a good, clean run, but not speedy. I couldn't tell from where I was standing if the judge had said they had "made time"--the term for completing a course within a required number of seconds. If you don't "make time," it doesn't matter how flawless your run is. It doesn't count.
I found myself running toward the scoring area.
"Did you? Did you?" I called out.
"We'll have to see," she waved back. "It's gonna be close."
A few minutes later I saw her at the scoring table. Smiling.
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