I didn't know Candice LaFramboise.
But I knew Karen Benziger and the two women went through very similar experiences.
Perhaps that's why I was drawn to a table at the Ceres Relay for Life where papers chronicled Candice's thoughts as she faced the disease none of us want to hear.
It would have been easy to skip over a visit to the table to remember some unknown person - whose memory this past Relay was dedicated - suffered cancer and died. But I felt compelled to make her as "real" in my mind as all the other people I've known who died of cancer. The latest happened yesterday morning when Bryan Mitchell, the son of Central Valley High School staffer Carolyn Mitchell, died of cancer after a five-year battle. Bryan used to be a kid in my Sunday School class.
I read the words of this cancer victim written as she was going through the midst of a very scary travail. It was like opening up a fresh wound for me. Excerpts from her Facebook posts were accompanied by pictures. Candice's face wasn't familiar, but the bald head, the dark circles under the eyes and the bloated face were all too familiar. That's what happened to my wife Karen after she developed leukemia - the worst possible kind - in 2011 and it ultimately took her life in 2013.
I suddenly was reliving the difficult experience my wife went through two years ago. But I was also remembering how my wife's mother died of ovarian cancer; how her dad, a World War II veteran, was taken out by a grapefruit-sized lung tumor; how my paternal grandmother died of lung cancer; and how countless friends and family members died from it. A mole, allowed to go unchecked for seven months, took the life of my niece's husband who was a few years younger than me.
Cancer is an unmitigated bastard. It doesn't care whose life it tears up in the process. It even destroyed a sweet innocent little girl, my cousin Sandra, who died at age 10 from leukemia in 1975.
The weak smile on Candice's face was similar to the forced smiles I'd see on Karen's face on days when there seemed no end to poking and prodding and IV tubes and waiting for the pronouncement of remission. There was really no reason to smile, except to acknowledge that she was breathing another day. She didn't show any bitterness but she was dished out a taste of it from another patient on the 11th floor - the blood disease floor - of UCSF Medical Center. Recently admitted for treatment, Karen was briskly and cheerfully walking the corridor while whisking her IV pole with her. As she strolled past one patient's door, he coldly shot out, "Why are you smiling? You're going to die anyway."
I might have punched him if that were me.
Like Karen, Candice just knew she was going to beat her cancer. On Aug. 10, 2012, Candice posted: "Thank u everyone & thank u Jesus....we're knocking these obstacles down one at a time!! Cancer....u better run, cuz we're coming for YOU!!!"
That was the day tumors were removed from Candice's sore scalp. The next day she wasn't managing pain well but Vicodin helped.
Candice, the stranger, seems more real when I read: "My sweet boys prayed that mommy's owie goes away and, of course, that melted me."
Her lung tumors were surgically removed that month.
"Father....grant me the strength to endure this roller coaster of a ride......I know you are with me.....I love you so. Some days are just harder than others.....I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME!!"
On Oct. 14 she wrote: "I'm super excited to get back to myself again! Plus, great morning in church, so I feel spiritually fed and ready to tackle this week!"
Months go by. Candice was back to work at the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department on April 24, 2013, writing: "I know the Lord walks by my side!" She expresses gratitude that fellow employees have given her donated sick days, calling them "the most amazing, selfless people on this earth."
August 2013 rolls around with chemo and an answer to money worries: "We FINALLY received my SDI payment! Praise God! We can pay bills! Yahoo! Lol...no seriously, three months with next to no paycheck was getting a little hairy but even then God made sure we were taken care of! He never ceases to amaze me! ... Then, yesterday, we were blessed with a delicious meal made with love by my sweet family friend Carrie Smith! It was so yummy! Thank u girl for all u do! We love u!"
The chemo is causing mouth sores and pain and eating and drinking is a "challenge." Ditto with Karen.
Candice's head was shaved on Aug. 21. Candice's mom joined in the experience. It makes sense, after reading this, why I saw Shelia Brandt, Candice's aunt, at Ceres City Council meetings with a bald head. I never pried but just assumed that Shelia was in a cancer fight. She related to me at the Relay why her head was bald those months.
I remember the day Karen asked nurses to shave her head for fear that loose strands would wind up in her food and bed, only I wasn't brave enough to shave my head.
Candice's entry on May 18, 2014 said: "Haven't posted a selfie recently.....so here's the most recent Candice-as-a-cancer-patient pic! Lovely isn't it? Dark circles under my eyes, swollen like nobody's business (thx steroids), peach fuzz hair, and the freckles.....goodness, where did those come from???
"But I'm rockin it! Lol....hey, this is ME gettin real! It just confirms that the chemo is doing what it's intended to do, right? Then I guess I'll wear this "look" with pride...... Ok, maybe I'm not being 100% real......to be totally honest. I miss my hair, my clear completion, hydrated skin, feeling pretty, I could go on. I know these things will come back eventually (and I'm not throwing a pity party or searching for compliments), but I'm just feeling a bit RAW today I guess. Yeah, raw is a good way to describe this feeling. That's why I shared my updated selfie.....this is me.....RAW, UNADORNED, but fighting this crud with all I've got!"
I remember feeling ashamed the days I'd look at Karen and think, "Thank God it's not me fighting leukemia." But when I exerted empathy - actually put myself in her shoes - I shuddered to the core, as if it was happening to me. I suffered with her every step of the way when I was there between work and time off.
June 10, 2014. Candice writes that she is forcing herself to smile through massive headaches, neck, shoulder and arm pain, facial numbness, side discomfort. "I REALLY don't want to take any pain meds (I hate them!)," she writes, "but if I'm in as much pain tonight as I was today, they may be on the menu. Prayers are sooo appreciated."
Candice is darkened by discouragement, I read. "I've been talking to God all day, trying to keep giving Him my worries, pain, frustration....I'm trying, but to be completely honest, I'm struggling. Jesus, fill me with your peace and anyone else reading this who is struggling like I am! We need you! I hope this doesn't come across like a boo-hoo fest....if it does, I'm sorry, but this is me being real and today is just a yucky day!"
Karen battled similar severe discouragement, such as May 10, 2013 when at UC Davis Medical Center she wrote, "I'm looking out my 8th floor prison window and yet I still praise our God. Thank God for such a time as this where is technology to take care of this disease. Chemo starts today. Please pray it not harm any part of me and only the cancer blasts will be destroyed. Having hard time being caged!"
Atop of her medical problems, Candice vents about insurance not paying for hospital stays and body scans. But she is happy for another reason: "My boys get to come visit momma in the hospital today...I cannot wait to see them. I'm actually giddy....well, the Dilaudid helps, too."
Karen was buoyed by each family visit as golden times. It must have been hard for Candice's boys to see their mother withering away. I should know as my own children grieved to see it happen to their mom.
I'm choking with tears on the Ceres High football field as I read Candice say on July 8, 2014 that she is actually ashamed of herself for feeling "ungrateful."
Ungrateful? Are you kidding me? If anyone had that right it was Candice. But - can you believe - she writes: "I've been moaning and groaning about pain and our ‘lack of joy'.....what a crock! I've been so blinded by the Evil One and convinced we have something to be unhappy about but we don't! We've been blessed beyond our deserving and I've lost track of that......Father forgive me! Searching my soul tonight and clinging to His mercies."
Her last post came on Aug. 17, 2014: "Guess who is among the living again....this girl! Still dealing with massive pain, but doing a bit better than before. Thank u for all the prayers, thoughts and support. I have a lot to post about, just not the energy to do it quite yet. I'll get there. For now, just sending my love and letting everyone know to keep those prayers coming.
"All my love."
There would be no more Facebook posts for Candice. The sun comes up on Sept. 25, 2014 and Candice's life is over. She was 32 years old, which I ironically was as long as I was married. (Candice also dies on our anniversary date.) Family and friends grieve and the lifeless body is taken away by strangers in suits.
It's been 22 months since that was my own experience. It was a spiritual experience to watch someone who shared my life for 33 years take a last breath and be ushered into an eternal place where God welcomed her.
There had better be a heaven to make up for such injustices here on the planet. Such faith cannot go unrewarded.
Karen's Facebook page went dark after June 1, 2013 when she invited friends to join her at the Waterford Relay for Life where she would be sharing her "journey" that night. I remember she told the crowd how she was in days going to the City of Hope for experimental treatment. We drove that 300-mile trip to Southern California on June 5, 2013, to be told by a doctor, sorry, I have no clinical trials for another month and I doubt you will make it another month. I load her up for the trip back up 99, knowing her death sentence had not been commuted.
She proved that doctor wrong; she lasted that entire month, dying in her sleep on July 5.
You don't go through an experience like that without being changed. My hair is noticeably grayer now, but my heart is more tender and more forgiving. You see, cancer teaches you life is very short.
I won't ever be able to pass by Sutter Gould on Coffee Road in Modesto without forgetting the cold introduction to the world of leukemia. That was the day her oncologist announced he had to drill a hole into Karen's lower spine to take out a plug of bone marrow to test it for leukemia. He downplayed the pain but she said it hurt worse than anything. I watched her endure the pain like it was happening to me.
Eventually the harsh blast of chemo designed to save Karen killed off all of her bone marrow. It simply would never produce blood again. Her last months of life were chained to regular visits for blood transfusions at Memorial Medical Center. Gradually her skin darkened, she suffered frequent nose bleeds, her eyes turned blood red and she had to be lifted on and off the toilet. The death watch was on for weeks. I would witness her raising invisible bites of food to her mouth while in bed and mummers of confusion. On the day before she died, I could see her mind clouded further in a haze like how morning fog can choke out the summer sun on the beach at Half Moon Bay. I asked her, "You don't know who I am, do you?" She shook her head and feebly said, "No." Nor did she care. Irritability due to the process of dying is understandable but its cruelty is heartbreaking. She was hours from death. The last sounds she heard were the pops of fireworks from neighbor's Fourth of July fireworks and the whir of the ceiling fan in the den.
At 2:45 a.m., death came and there was relief that this medical nightmare was over. There was relief, too, in knowing that she was in a better place.
Life is a mystery. Why cancer picks and chooses its victims is beyond my understanding. On May 15, 2013: Karen shared her Bible verse of the day: "You don't know the path the wind takes. You don't know how a baby is made inside its mother. So you can't understand how God works either. He made everything."
Let's hope He makes a cure too.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org