At this time of year, it is always bittersweet for me to embrace October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Although it is a month to help save lives, making awareness the key to early detection and survival, I feel conflicted with the loss of my dear friend Valerie, who passed from this dreaded disease in the early 2000s.
I remember Valerie, and I write of her because it is a time to honor survivors, acknowledge loss and to do all we can to remind mothers and grandmothers, sisters and daughters, aunts, cousins and friends to proactively monitor, protect and guard their health. Self-exams, annual exams, timely mammograms — so much critical information in many places, including that which is fully outlined by Hadassah in its Breast Cancer Awareness information. The mission to save lives is a global one. But my story is a personal one.
I met Valerie, a gifted graphic artist and cartoonist, when I was a young account person in the direct marketing division of a major ad agency. She was a freelancer illustrator, drawing television storyboards for business presentations before there was anything even close to being called Adobe. She took direction from all the art directors, but I was assigned to give her marketing information on a client’s business. Turns out a senior art director “permitted” Valerie to talk with me — a professional blessing to allow the mixing of creatives and account managers with two simple words, “Lauren’s okay.”
Our work efforts turned into a strong foundation for friendship. She guided me through some rocky romantic entanglements, much the way an older sister might do so. I finally got the chance to grow up, introduce her to my husband and parents and realize that her impact was to be everlasting, no matter where we worked or lived.
She was fearless, she was persistent, she always seemed to master a balance of joy vs. irony. As a talented seamstress and doll designer she came to my Halloween baby shower dressed as a (baby) Carpenter Ant complete with hinged legs and diaper. As a talented artist, she drew my caricature leaning against a palm tree and later, my husband juggling drama masks symbolic of the theatre work he had done for years.
And then, armed with the knowledge of a strong family history of breast cancer, she waged a long fight against the disease but didn’t win. I never got to say goodbye.
It is my best understanding that the world’s fight against breast cancer has changed in the past decades, and I am grateful that there are more survivors, more innovative treatments, more early detection and diagnosis. Yet the fight hasn’t changed when it comes to continued awareness and funding.
It is in our power to contribute to the charities that provide care, research and guidance to men and women fighting breast cancer. It is in our power to remain strong, resilient and resolute against it. And it is in our power to run the races, wear pink ribbons, drive the fundraising and tell the stories of our loved ones.
Each October, I gratefully consider so many who have survived this illness. And yet I am painfully aware that it was not to be that way for so many people including Valerie, so I will continue to pay tribute to her and the people she represents. I miss her dearly, the woman who was my “Val” and likely to have been the loving “Aunt Val” to my children if she had lived to really see them grow.