On Monday 6 February 2012 my dear friend Rachel Cheetham, blogger at The Cancer Culture Chronicles, died of metastatic breast cancer. This last week I left the blog in the good hands of my beloved partner Ronnie Hughes, as I travelled over to New Jersey to say goodbye to Rach. I’ll be posting more about this, and also editing film of the service. But for now, here are my words for Rach, as read by me on Saturday 11 February 2012 at the ‘Celebration of Life’ service for Rachel in New Jersey.
I’ve only known Rach for a fairly short time, but we very quickly became close. I was looking back through my emails to see when we started to get to know each other and I found the first message from her in November 2010. You see Rach and I both inhabit the ‘blogosphere’ – that’s what we call the space where we bloggers meet. Yes I have a breast cancer blog, like Rach. I too have been diagnosed with breast cancer, at a relatively early age, have been treated, have spent years of my life being a patient. But unlike Rach, I’m lucky. I’m lucky because my cancer hasn’t behaved like Rach’s did – at least not yet. So I’m still here to talk about the life I’m living after diagnosis, which for the most part doesn’t involve much medical intervention. But the thing that Rach and I immediately had in common was that we disliked the culture of breast cancer that wanted us to be triumphal survivors. You may have read Rachel’s obituary, written by Anthony (her beloved husband), about how they got on with their lives after Rachel’s diagnosis and treatment….
Confident treatment was successful, because everyone “survives” breast cancer, don’t they?
But in fact, not everyone survives breast cancer, and bloggers like me and Rach felt that telling the truth about breast cancer might actually help us start finding a cure, and eradicating the disease in the first place.
So, I stumbled across Rachel’s blog in October 2010, and sent her a message saying how refreshing I found her honesty. She wrote straight back and even in the first email from her, straight off she was speaking it like it is, and exclaiming on how difficult it was to be a stage IV breast cancer patient. (Sorry I can’t do the accent here):
No one really wants to hear about it unless you’re embracing the survivorship sisterhood and doing it with smile on your face with a feeling of eternal gratefulness. What a load of bollocks.
And as if she felt she needed to justify this comment she went on, almost as a stage whisper:
(another thing about me, I’m Australian by birth of English parents, and now live in the US with my American hubby).
Well, I liked her. She sounded like my kind of friend! And so a few more emails were exchanged, then she revealed to me that she was not in fact Anna – the pen name she’d been using – and I got to find my new friend Rach.
In many ways Rach is similar to me, I mean we share a lot of interests – gardening, the natural world, knitting, cooking – and we also share a very ‘direct’ approach, I think that’s probably a polite way to describe it!
Shortly after our email exchanges we began to Skype, and that became a regular event where we’d spend literally hours putting the world to rights – marathon Skypes Rach called them – having a good old criticism of breast cancer culture, a load of laughs and probably share some recipes along the way, as well as talk about what was growing in my garden. We talked about our backgrounds, our families, our wishes for the future, about the reality of Rachel’s disease. It was always very open, no subject was off-topic and we were easily able to be completely honest with each other.
I then came over to New Jersey in June last year. I was welcomed with open arms by Rachel and Anthony into their home and enjoyed a fabulous stay with them. And Rach also decided I was Newman’s auntie! (Newman is Rachel’s adored small dog, a Norwich terrier).
In the book we’ve produced for today (Note: we will be making these available through the blogs), I’ve included two twin blog posts which we wrote about our friendship that explain a bit more about us becoming friends, but after the visit there was rarely a week that went by when I didn’t have a least one Skype with Rach, plus lots of blog comment swapping and social media interaction.
Rach planned to make a return visit to me in Liverpool in October. But, sadly, things weren’t going well for Rach medically and she wasn’t up to making the trip. But through the year I made regular short films for Rach (I’m a film maker), films about my allotment – that’s a garden that’s on a piece of land rented for growing plants, usually vegetables and fruit. I also made her films of the walks I’d take with my husband Ronnie, and he’d give her historical narratives of the places we visited. If Rach couldn’t come to see me in person, I could still share my world with her. And I was glad to, she always had the most inquisitive questions about the places I showed her. It was a great way to be together, even if we physically couldn’t be together.
I searched for a long time to find breast cancer friends and , for me, finding Rach was like fulfilling everything I wanted – someone who got where I was about breast cancer culture – she filled a void. I mean that would have been enough… But the fact that we shared all those other interests was just a bonus really. And so not to have her in my life leaves the void again.
I loved so much about Rach. I loved the way she would abbreviate words – especially ‘brekkie’ for breakfast, and ‘chokkie’ for chocolate. I’ll forever hear them spoken in Rach’s voice. I preserved some pears from the garden in cider, and kept a jar for Rach, for when she finally visited. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘they’ll be lovely with a bit of ice cream and some chokkie sauce.’
And her humour was sparkling, and there was no shortage of that in Rachel’s writing. I am spoilt for choice to give you an example, but her Christmas piece about her favourite seasonal things included the practical aids of the panini press and the freezer full of food from her mother-in-law (thanks Felicia), as well as the economy sized stool softener, suitably illustrated with Rach holding her Miralax and pulling a snarky face and sporting a Father Christmas hat – had me laughing out loud reading it. Her ability to laugh and make fun of her situation was really remarkable.
But I also loved how angry she was, how honest, how open, how brave, how daring. Many of the tributes you will read about Rach say how she inspired them to be honest, to speak out, to tell their truths. I know I’ve often asked Rach about the best way to express something, or worked on a blog post jointly with her. I will miss that. I will miss the noise of Rach. My partner, Ronnie, who sometimes got roped into my Skypes with Rach, will also miss her. He’s written a poem for Rach, in the book, but these few lines sum her up perfectly:
All the notes
Of all the orchestras,
Played at once and turned up full.
That’s Rach alright. Full on. I think we’ll be hearing her still for a long time, her ‘turned up full’ writing is still there and will impact a lot of people still. I’m glad about that.
In the last couple of months Rach would address me, in writing, as ‘Dear one’ It was very endearing, and I am so sad that I will no longer be Rach’s dear one. I will miss her so much.
I’ve already told you that Rach was fascinated by my allotment garden in Liverpool – she was a keen gardener herself. She longed to visit it. I am sad that this never happened. On Wednesday this week I picked rosemary there and I brought it here and left it in Rachel’s garden this morning, in the snow – for Rach. Rosemary for remembrance.
I will never forget you Rach.