Posted on March 25, 2013


Red Couch

Many years ago, she fought the good fight against breast cancer and she won. She left her job as a Realtor and went to work for the Breast Cancer Walk, run by the city of Alexandria, VA. The passion she had put into real estate was now put into saving women’s lives. She went on with her own. She was a wife, a mother, a friend, an artist, an advocate. She was a force of nature. Forces of nature don’t die.

I met her several years ago in a Pilates class. She had been recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had gotten scared. Now she got angry. She learned that 20% of women with lung cancer never smoked (she didn’t). Far more women died of lung cancer than of breast cancer. Far less money was given to lung cancer research than to breast cancer. She was now fighting something that was more dangerous and less understood. She had no time to feel sorry for herself. She was a wife, a mother, a friend, an artist, an advocate. She was a force of nature. Forces of nature don’t die.

We became good friends. While I understood her prognosis, I never experienced the consequences. Her energy level allowed her to work out several hours per day. Her attitude toward life allowed her no room for self-pity or for depression. Eventually she took early retirement from the Breast Cancer Walk. She devoted her boundless energy to the gym, her art, her family, her friends, her advocacy. She had the time and the energy for it all. So it seemed.

She became a fierce advocate for her life. She browbeat, she cajoled, she pestered, she demanded. She gained access to the best doctors and the best research protocols. She made people pay attention to her, people who normally wrote off patients whose cancers were as advanced as hers. She outlived her support group. She continued to benefit from one of the protocols, even after everyone else, with earlier stages than hers, stopped getting any benefit. She continued to beat the odds, day after day after day. She coached others about not giving up hope. She was a force of nature. Forces of nature don’t die.

The last few months were different. A chemo that no longer worked, followed by a firm denial to enter the next protocol, one that was having a great success rate. For the first time, she lost weight. For the first time, she stopped going to the gym. For the first time, she referred to the cancer as “this monster.”

We went couch shopping. She wanted what she called her “cancer couch,” a place where she and her husband and her son could snuggle together and watch TV. The salesman told her delivery would be 8-12 weeks. She raised her voice. “Listen to me,” she said, “I have stage 4 lung cancer. I need this couch before I die.”

She worked on gaining entry to the research study under the “compassionate care” category. She was denied. She kept at it. Like a dog with a bone, she dug in and dared anyone to take it away. I was at the house when the call came from the doctor in charge of the research study. The doctor promised entry, one way or another.

Two weeks passed. I held my breath. One day she called me. “It’s happened!” she yelled. “I’m jumping for joy! In two days, the count will arrive!” I said, “Incredible! So if the blood count is good, you can get the protocol?” There was a moment of silence.

“I didn’t say anything about the blood count. That was already done. I said the COUCH will arrive!”

The couch arrived. Bright red leather. Gorgeous, bold, shrieking of life. Within a day or two, she received her first dose of the protocol chemo. Her blog post the following day was buoyant. She had done it. I told her she would wear that couch out and go on to the next one before this whole thing was over.

Two days later, she experienced shortness of breath that quickly worsened. Her lungs, already severely compromised, could not cope. Before her husband and son could get her out of the house, she collapsed. By the time the EMT people got there, she was gone. It was at the exact time that it seemed her life would get back on track, that the couch would be a place on which to simply relax and not on which to wait to die.

When I think of Ellen, it is the colors that I see. In her home, in her clothing, in her jewelry, in the vast amount of art that she both collected and produced. Especially in her words and her passion. She was passionate about her family, her friends, her faith, and her future. Those of us who were blessed to have known her cannot help but go forward in a world that, because of her, contains more color and more life.

I love you, Ellen, and I thank you.