Watching Helplessly While my Best Friend Battled Cancer

I found out I was moving the summer between 8th grade and high school. Perfect timing right? I was devastated. Maybe 2 or 3 weeks after the news, I was spending time at my grandma’s house, like we do each summer. I received a phone call from my dad with even more devastating news: Abbey has cancer.

Abbey, who had grown up with me and had been my next door neighbor since we were both 4 or 5.  She had been diagnosed with cancer, and I was moving away from the little sanctuary that her and I called home.

(Abbey and I on one of my visits back to Akron to watch my old show choir compete.)

I drove home the next day and immediately ran to Abbey’s house, 3 houses down from mine. We lied down in her backyard and looked at the stars and she talked about cancer, and I talked about moving. Normally these talks would occur as we walked the trail behind her house to our favorite park. But considering the cancer was in her knee and one bad bump could ruin everything, we were confined to the bounds of her backyard. Sometimes I felt guilty for talking about my own problems to her, but I know in a strange way it was comforting for her; it reminded her she was not the only one going through something.

That was one of the last times her and I got to spend quality time together before this whole process began. For Abbey, it was endless doctors visits, family friends delivering casseroles, and comforting her parents, who were crushed. For me, it was seeing every person in Copley, Ohio and the entire greater-Akron area going on social media and posting “TEAM ABBEY” or “NO ONE FIGHTS ALONE.” And what was I doing? Packing my bags.

 

(Above, Abbey’s first chemo treatment.)

I was home for her first week of chemo, then my family and I drove to Pittsburgh the day before my freshman year of high school began. I was exceptionally good at placing a smile on my face at school; I knew if I didn’t make friends I would not survive. All the while, I saw the endless social media that was “Team Abbey.”

 

(Above, the day Abbey shaved her head. Her parents also brought home that adorable little puppy after Abbey was diagnosed.)

Her and I had been dedicated members of the community show choir in Akron, and now the group was selling t-shirts with their logo on the front and Team Abbey on the back (my family bought five). Girls were putting yellow stripes in their hair (yellow stood for bone cancer; I put one in my hair that clashed terribly with blonde). Everyone wore yellow “no one fights alone” bracelets (I lost mine somewhere). As if any of that actually helps. People were posting pictures left and right and tagging Abbey in all of them. That is not real support.

(Still in show choir, Abbey got to perform during the only song that didn’t have dancing. The theme of the choir that competition season was Team Abbey.)

However, seeing all of this “support” from two hours away made me feel utterly helpless. All of this “support” overwhelmed Abbey, and she rarely spent time on her phone anymore. She was a bit preoccupied. I couldn’t be there for her even if I wanted. In fact, we barely talked at all. And that really hurt.

There was one point through all of this where my mother asked if I had talked to Abbey recently. I defensively asked why she was asking— because I had not talked to Abbey recently. She then reminded me that things were not looking good for Abbey, worse than how they originally looked. The idea that I could actually lose my friend then stayed in the back of my mind. It was horrifying. Thankfully, this ended up not being the case.

There were two or three critical moments throughout all of this where her and I video chatted, and it was as if we hadn’t gone all that time apart. I was also able to have a substantial visit over winter break. At that time, she had lost all her hair and a lot of her weight. I was one of the few people with which she felt comfortable taking off her beanie, and I’ll never forget how much that meant. Growing up, we used to have “Annie Kate and Abbey’s KARAZY adventures.” When we were finally reconnected, this was just another KARAZY adventure.

(Abbey and her sister going on one of their "walks.")

After roughly six months of grueling chemotherapy— and one moment where we all got really worried— Abbey also received radiation. She could finally have surgery to remove her right knee and parts of her femur and tibia. The details of all the surgery and recovery are not very well known to me; all I know is she was finally cancer-free.

(This was taken when Abbey was finally done with treatment. She is wearing a t-shirt that says “My Oncologist Rocks.”)

This story is important to tell because it shows how cancer not only affects the patient but also everyone around them. It’s a story of a cancer kid told from the perspective of the outside third-party ("The Great Gatsby" of cancer stories, if you will).

I had not realized how much Abbey’s cancer had affected me until my high school chorus raised money for a boy that also had osteosarcoma. Here I was, physically and tangibly here for a cancer kid in a way I could not be for my best friend. I had to leave the room, I absolutely could not control myself and keep it together. I contacted Abbey that day to apologize for not being the friend she needed. Thankfully, she reminded me that I was there in ways others were not.

Although Abbey beat cancer, her trials and tribulations were far from over. After the cancer left, the depression stayed behind. She did not heal properly because most days she did not get out of bed for physical therapy. For nearly two years— the rest of her high career— she had a heavy limp and always complained of pain.

She had to medically withdraw from her first year of college because both semesters she was plagued with an awful staph infection. She lost her prosthetic knee and her ability to walk. Months passed (Abbey and I went to the beach during this period of time) and finally a new prosthetic was available. After waking up from surgery, the doctors informed her it was unsuccessful. There just wasn’t enough skin left to close over a fake knee. That was when Abbey made the decision to amputate.

You cut off the leg; you cut off the problem.

I have called Abbey after each of her major surgeries. Usually, she is still intoxicated under pain medicine and does not remember the phone call. The day after her amputation, she was perfectly coherent, which was a surprise. She sounded happy. I knew then that everything was going to be fine.

 

(Abbey and I in Hilton Head, summer 2016.)

Abbey and I were not always the closest of friends. In fact, we would go months not talking after the smallest of fights. Her and I will joke still about how ridiculous we were! Despite this, we grew up together. We were there through it all. We will go so long not talking, then when we finally reconnect, it’s as if we never left. She is the friend I go to when I struggle with mental health or when boys break my heart. That is something I do not see changing anytime soon.

As a fun side note, Abbey got a wish from the Make A Wish Foundation! She was fortunate enough to go to Los Angeles and perform a song on The Voice stage. She is now a huge advocate of the amazing generosity of this wonderful charity. For more information or to get involved/make a donation, visit their website.

 

(Above, Abbey hugging Adam Levine and surrounded by the other judges and host after performing on The Voice stage.)

The takeaway is that while none of this happened to me, watching my friend go through something like this really made its impact. It’s important to differentiate real support from a social media attention grab. I did not know how to be there for her when I was not physically there. The important thing is that I was always trying.

*All photos are either mine or Abbey’s.