A shared diagnosis of cancer builds a bridge, but the disease may have the final word.

By Christine Wilson

There are people in my life who occupy defined spaces. I have a number of professional associates, for example, with whom I share long-standing, warm interactions that have never extended beyond the workplace, and tennis buddies whose interactions have remained confined to the court and maybe an occasional team lunch. There is nothing wrong with these relationships. They are important and satisfying in their own right and would probably suffer from trying to expand their reach.

Since being diagnosed with cancer, I have found that sharing that reality also forms the basis for some unusual but rewarding connections. One of these actually grew from an earlier, superficial relationship with someone I knew as part of a different group entirely—the early-morning dog walkers and joggers that I see every day as I follow my border collie mix around the neighborhood. Out at 6:30 a.m. in any weather, this group is characterized by a social contract that generally limits exchanges to brief greetings and observations about that weather and is probably more tuned in to the names and the habits of our dogs than of one another. I’m Oreo’s mom.

I used to see one particular member of this group all the time. She was a jogger, and what I noticed about her was that she was slow but incredibly persistent. I would watch her labor up the hill on the street that borders my property: blond, middle-aged, a little stocky, but so determined—head down, one foot in front of the other. She just wouldn’t quit. Sometimes I would see her as I walked Oreo, return home, have breakfast, read the paper and shower—and then look out an hour later to see her doing another lap around the 1.5-mile course. I admired her but wondered what made her so dogged, what made those runs so important.

At the time I was working for a big scientific organization, and we were in the process of preparing a video for our annual meeting. We asked for some help from the University of Pennsylvania, which agreed to let us shoot in one of its labs and to interview a patient about clinical trials. On the day of the shoot, when the patient arrived, we just stared at each other for a second, and then she said, “You’re the dog lady,” and I said, “You’re the jogger.”

Her name was Linda. She had been diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma two years before. She had been through several rounds of chemotherapy and was doing well. She was a reporter and bureau chief for a local news agency. Usually, when you ask patients to be part of a video, they are a little awed by the whole thing and very eager to please, but Linda was feisty. She had great respect for her treatment team but also had some hard messages to deliver about some aspects of the experience, and she didn’t hesitate to articulate them on-camera. It took a while before we got the positive take on clinical trials that we were after, but Linda was just as strong and determined discussing her cancer as she was pushing herself up the hill.

After that we started talking more. I could tell that she didn’t want to dally for too long, but she told me about the cancer, how it had seemed to come out of nowhere, catching her off guard at a difficult time in her life. She said that despite the advanced stage, the disease itself had not made her sick, but the treatments had. I learned that she had a cat named Roger Federer and, like me, loved tennis. She told me about how she had once had a commitment for an interview from a big celebrity and the guy wouldn’t take her calls, so she called him every 10 minutes until he gave up. She said she used the same techniques to communicate with her doctors when they were hard to reach and that she had bribed the clerk in the nuclear medicine department with expensive chocolates to get her scan results faster.

There was a period of three or four weeks in the early summer when she vanished, and I worried. One day she reappeared, looking so gaunt that I almost didn’t recognize her. Seeing her so thin and fragile, I assumed that the disease was taking its toll. I wanted to hug her but kept my distance. We weren’t that kind of friends. I did let her know how concerned I had been, and she told me that it wasn’t the cancer, at least not directly. She had been laid low by a nasty GI infection that put her in the hospital and made it impossible to eat much of anything much less run. She still wasn’t eating, but she was running again, training for a half marathon.

It wasn’t long after that that I learned I had an unusual form of thyroid cancer, and I crossed the line from communicator and observer to patient. I told Linda about it on a beautiful September morning a week or so after my second surgery. I was still adjusting to my own new reality, and it felt strange to tell her about what was happening. I knew that whatever my situation, hers was a far more immediate threat and that she had been through so much more than I could even imagine at that point. Still we now belonged to a more intimate group. We were survivors.

She absorbed my news matter-of-factly and told me she too had had thyroid cancer a few years earlier. It hadn’t been too big a deal, she said, sharing that the worst part for her was the prescribed low-iodine diet before the radioactive iodine scan. She was nice, concerned, and caring, but we both knew as we stood on the corner on that late summer day that the differences between our situations were much greater than what we shared. Still the friendship deepened after that. Our sidewalk conversations grew longer, until they stopped.

The last time I saw Linda running was the week before Thanksgiving. She was doing eight circuits, some 11 miles. She told me that her last scan had shown progressive disease and that her doctor wanted to start her on a new drug that was just coming out of the pipeline. She was reluctant to go on the trial because she had heard it caused severe muscle pain and weakness—and might interfere with her running. She was hell-bent on going to tennis camp in Florida for a few days before she started the new chemotherapy—and as usual mad at her doctor for not calling her enough. She didn’t seem to be thinking about dying, but I was, wondering how long she had if the new drug failed. I urged her to do the tennis camp and tell me how it went.

I never got to hear about it because I haven’t seen her since. At first I thought maybe it was just the cold and the snow of the terrible winter we had that was keeping her off the dark, predawn roads. But now the snow is gone, it’s light at 6:30 a.m., and it is getting warmer every day. My office window faces the street, and every time I see a jogger go by I look to see if it is Linda.

That’s the funny thing. Our connection is real but limited. We are friends—but within a defined space and time, those early mornings on which we encounter each other, her shuffling from foot to foot to keep moving, me holding on to my restless dog, talking a little about tennis but mostly about cancer. It wouldn’t be right to try to track her down. I can only wait and let the situation play itself out—wait to see her plodding up the hill or to hear that she is gone. I think about her every morning as I set out on my dog walk and feel her absence.