Ellen sits Kerameikos cemetery in Athens, Greece.

We all will die and Life is Now

Another friend of mine is dead. Killed by Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She transcended Earth for another world. Her recent death got me thinking about how we all will die and Life is Now. Not later.

Her name was Shana. Like me, she had breast cancer. Around the time of my double mastectomy in July 2018, she was traveling in Europe already through her first rounds of cancer treatment. That inspired me.

Soaring inspiration for a flat life

We both had our breasts removed, and we both decided to “live flat.” Outwardly, in lifestyle choices, that is all Shana and I had in common. We never even met in person. Yet she was a soul sister.

She helped me get comfortable with my decision to remain flat following my double mastectomy. I had already decided to forego breast reconstruction, because my ultimate goal was to keep traveling the world with as few complications as possible. But, I sure did love seeing pictures of a happy American breast cancer warrior traveling while ‘flat’.

Shana and I both were excited to live more fully with cancer (hopefully) behind us. We were gifted a glimpse of eternal truths through cancer experiences: we all will die and Life is Now.

We all will die and Life is Now

Healed from surgery, I wanted to give back to people in some way. I found an opportunity for the spouse Theo and me to volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece. These people had lost so much more than a body part; I was so grateful to be alive and wanted to help in some small way.

On some days before we had to report to ‘work’, we strolled around historic sites in Athens. We went to the Kerameikos Cemetery, where the Eleusinian Mysteries (cult initiations) were performed, and I felt the presence of the ancients – old souls with secrets about human life and their other world.

I asked Theo to snap the picture of me at the top of this page. I remember smirking for the shot, while inwardly hoping I had cheated death for at least a little while. And shortly after that photo was taken, we discovered ubiquitous odd life in that cemetery: old, slow tortoises – so many among the graves.

We all have death in common. Death is a given. Yet most people avoid the topic. We also have life in common. Yet so many people do not live as if they fully understand: Life is Now, despite speculation on longevity.

“The life you thought was stretching out before you…”

I was in Southeast Asia. when Shana announced her breast cancer was back. “I had clean scans just 6 months ago, so things can change fast,” she wrote. She lived two more years. Often in physical pain and frustrated, and, eventually, resigned to the inevitable.

Shana was open about her dying experience with friends and family. She talked about the brutal ordeal of Gamma Knife surgery and other treatments I will never endure. She shared what it was like to tell her young daughters that her cancer had come back.

“My girls may be too young to remember the exact date, but yesterday will forever be a “Before and After” day for them … a day when your entire life shifts, turns on a dime … when in the time it takes to say a few sentences, the life you thought was stretching out before you is gone, vanished into thin air. I wish I could protect them from this, but I can’t. No one can. But I will walk this road with them for as long as I am able.”

-Shana

As I traveled, Shana got sicker. Of course there were good days, especially the first year. But it wasn’t easy. Harsh treatments impacted her quality of life, the metastatic diagnosis left her emotions reeling, and it sucked to accept estate planning was more realistic than a miracle cure.

“I’m currently reading two books about end of life (When Breath Becomes Air, and Being Mortal) to help inform me about what dying is like, so I’m better equipped to make important decisions about a living will, DNR orders, etc.,” she wrote in late 2019. I suggested “No Death, No Fear” by Thich Nhat Hanh then, and again later. Closer to her end.

Shana was terrified of getting COVID-19, and frustrated over how the pandemic changed her care: “I wanted to start physical therapy to try to speed up my healing, but covid had other plans.”

In December 2020, Shana’s doctor predicted she would not live much longer. She died in February 2021. She was 49 years old.

Great big ‘flattie’ hugs

I’m not going to say Shana “fought” the cancer. I hate that phrase. It implies that by her death, she was weak- that she “lost the fight.” Another phrase I hate: “she lost her battle with breast cancer” — again implying she just wasn’t strong enough, fierce enough, motivated enough, to win a life-or-death battle.

Cancer grows wildly inside people. It’s that simple. It shuts down bodies and lives. But — not souls. Not someone’s essence.

Shana showed me what grace looks like in life, while staring at death. She showed me true strength, ferocity, and love. She won.

There are many women in my support network of my warrior sisters. I love them all. But Shana was one of three women who helped me the most about “living flat.” Today, all three women are dead.

I will never forget Shana’s, Rebecca’s and Jodi‘s distant, unusual friendships with me from half a world away. And one day, when I get to that other, elusively inevitable world, I’ll give them great big ‘flattie hugs’ filled with eternal gratitude.

Until then, Life is Now.

10 thoughts on “We all will die and Life is Now

  1. Sure brings life into perspective. We are so sorry you have lost a soul mate Ellen. We are chomping at the bit to get back to travel and your many stories give us that inspiration to keep exploring. Which we will . As covid slows , plans ramp up and it will be off to the airport for more adventure. Springstein was born to run…we are born to travel and learn. Cheers you two.

  2. Being a Breast Cancer Survivor myself, I thank God for every day. We never know what tomorrow might bring. Sorry for the loss of your friend. Love & hugs to you, Ellen. ?

  3. Thank you, Ellen. Having just lost my sister to a rare, aggressive cancer two weeks ago, this reminded me to move forward and keep in keeping on. She found out she had cancer a short year ago and now she is gone. You are inspiring and I thank you. And am so sorry for your loss. I hope we shall meet on the road one day…..Susie

  4. You are an inspiration to so many on so many levels, Ellen. I’m very sorry for your loss. You are spot on when you say no one loses their battle with cancer. You win by leaving behind a legacy of love and a life worth living in the now. We lead by example, by what we do far more than by what we say. You have set a braze example for all of us to follow. Peace, love and prayers for you,Ted, Shana, Rebecca and Jodi. Stay safe, my friend. ?

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