As we hover here on the cusp between summer and fall, with days that are hot and sunny and nights tinged with fall’s chill, I’m thinking about transitions, about seasons coming to an end and looking forward into the unknown.
These thoughts were amplified when I learned last week of the death of a woman I served with in the Peace Corps.
Amanda de Fiebre was just 34 when she died Aug. 30 of metastatic breast cancer that had traveled to her brain. She went through years of treatments; radiation, chemotherapy, surgeries, clinical trials. Her mother posted that Amanda wrote her obituary herself, knowing what could happen with the diagnosis she had.
Reading it, I was struck by Amanda’s grace, her love of life, of seeing as much of the world as she could and living as fully as she could, not letting cancer stop her from marrying the love of her life or from her passion of traveling when it was feasible.
I can’t say I knew Amanda well. We were both members of a group of 33 Americans serving in Eswatini together from 2009 to 2011, and that shared experience has a certain way of cementing a connection; I will never forget any of the people I served with. But life draws people apart, and I hadn’t communicated with Amanda since our service ended in 2011 beyond occasional “likes” or comments on Facebook.
Nonetheless, reading her obituary left me with a deep sense of grief. Grief for a life lost too young, grief for her husband and parents and friends.
Perhaps some of it was guilty grief, for not having reached out more substantially, for not having tried to keep a relationship alive. Maybe some of it was sympathetic grief; she was my age, almost exactly, and cancer is one of those ghouls that is all too common, without picturing it coming for you or your loved ones. Until it does, and you’re reminded it’s not just a shadow but a reality.
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So often the language that surrounds cancer or any chronic illness appropriates the language of war — fighting a disease, survivors cast as winners in a battle, as if with enough willpower and perseverance you could force the disease to retreat. I think, as Americans steeped in bootstrap mentality, it makes it easier for us to face such specters.
That’s not how it works, however. Sometimes you can’t battle it back, sometimes no matter how much you fight, you don’t get to win. And losing doesn’t make you weak, doesn’t mean you weren’t a good enough warrior. It just means the human body is fragile, and we don’t have all the answers about how to save it yet.
Finding those answers was what Amanda was passionate about; when cancer stole the life she’d planned from her, she became a fierce advocate for research and funding for metastatic breast cancer. She attended conferences, blogged and lobbied in Washington, D.C. I followed her journey via social media; as she met people through the events she attended, her posts started being sprinkled through with obituaries every few months, most of them of young women whom cancer had claimed. She always ended her posts about metastatic breast cancer with #stage4needsmore, a call to action for increased research funding. Her obituary ends with a request for donations to metavivor.org in lieu of flowers.
Amanda’s life was one of extraordinary courage. I hope that as this season changes, her family and friends can take strength from that. And that we can all aim to live our lives with such grace.
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