|Linda photographed on October 17th, 2015 at The Hess Collection in Napa, California.|
The last really great, happy, carefree day I spent with my sister.
"The greatest gift our parents ever gave us was each other." ~Unknown
Let me start by stating that my family doesn't get cancer. Or so I thought. My tribe mostly die from strokes and heart attacks, but not the dreaded cancer in any of its myriad of forms. This stupid misconception, this false sense of security that my family is somehow magically immune to cancer was unceremoniously dispatched in September 2015 when my sister Linda called to give me the horrid news that she had found a lump in her breast. When? Not recently, but six months prior in March. I was incredulous. For siblings who may go months between conversations this lack of disclosure may have been less of a surprise, but I spoke over the phone with my sister nearly every day. In addition, we frequently shared texts and emails.
By now we all know and understand that early detection and prompt treatment are the keys to a successful recovery from any ailment. Why, oh why had Linda kept this health crisis a secret? The answer was simple. She did not want to pursue a cure through allopathic medicine. As a trained herbalist, Linda believed in the efficacy of naturopathic treatments. Linda thought she could heal herself, and that it was incumbent upon her to do so. If Linda did not share the fear inducing news of discovering a lump in her breast with her sisters, her son, or her parents, then she could proceed as she wished without conflict, without having to answer difficult questions, or justify her reasoning process to the people in this world who cared about her the most.
As Linda had anticipated, as soon as she shared the news with Juliette and me, we began asking the tough questions. Her answers were unsatisfactory and left us wanting. We learned that Linda did not receive a diagnosis from a medical doctor. It was a chiropractor whom had confirmed Linda's worst fears. Juliette and I were dumbfounded. One does not go to a chiropractor to diagnose or treat cancer. Furthermore, it might not be cancer. The tumor could be benign or a cyst or something else. For all our efforts, we could not reason with Linda. Juliette and I could not fathom why Linda steadfastly refused to make an appointment with a board certified medical doctor. Didn't Linda want to investigate all the available treatment options and understand the corresponding pros and cons? No, she did not. Linda had set a course for herself and much to our chagrin she rigidly stayed on that course until her actions nearly took her life in the second week of February 2016.
|Linda photographed in 1977 by Danny Townsend in Tulsa, Oklahoma.|
Between September and December Linda lost over 50 pounds. In December alone she took off more than 15 pounds. Linda continued to use supplements of all kinds and she tried a variety of treatments including DMSO, black seed oil, MSM, maple syrup and baking soda, turkey tail mushrooms, cannabis oil and at least 15 other things. Nothing worked.
In November due to pain and restricted breathing, Linda believed that the cancer had metastasized to her ribs, back bones and lungs. All her life, Linda's Achilles's heel were her lungs. Problems associated with asthma increased. Not wanting to let her teammates down, Linda continued to work full-time during the hectic holiday season at Whole Foods Market, but it became increasingly difficult for her to do so. The asthma caused more fatigue and exercising became more difficult. She was in pain. And yet she persisted, holding fast to her decision to self-treat. Juliette was especially vigilant in arguing the case for Linda to seek medical help. Linda dug in and got angry that Juliette wasn't being supportive.
goat's milk. To Linda's surprise, because he is an N.D., he thought that she might need a mastectomy. To his credit, he immediately referred her to a surgeon at UCSF, but the first available appointment was not until early February. The N.D. also ordered a large panel of blood tests and a Thermogram to confirm that she had breast cancer.
In the meantime, the N.D. recommended that Linda read Radical Remission a book that details other types of treatment based on research that the author completed with hundreds of people who survived cancer, and it delves into the nine top things that the survivors did to heal themselves. Linda also started biomagnetic therapy with a practitioner in Santa Rosa, California who purportedly had very good success treating cancer patients with paired magnets.
Linda also sought the help from her long-time acupuncturist. When the elderly Chinese man saw Linda's breast he exclaimed that he could not help her, that she should go see a doctor immediately. Post-haste. Oh boy was Linda angry. How dare he suggest such a thing. We held our tongues and rolled our eyes. Except for Juliette, who told Linda, to once again, get a frickin' clue.
|The Beaumont sisters circa 1967.|
Front: Linda and Michelle
Back: Juliette and Maria
A few days later, on our dad's birthday, Linda sent an email to our extended family disclosing that she had breast cancer. Happy birthday to you, Paul. That's not even passive-aggressive, it's just aggressive. Dad said it was the second worst piece of news that he's received in his life. The first being when he learned that my sister Maria had died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Linda once again stated her position in the email that she was a believer in natural medicine and that she had decided many years ago that she would not have breast amputation, radiation or chemotherapy. I have learned to omit the word "never" from my vocabulary. Because once you say the words "I will never do...__________", it is highly likely that you surely will do it.
|Linda in the fall of 2013 while visiting Monterey, California.|
Photograph by Mark Glasser.
In early January Linda wasn't convinced that she needed to retain the appointment with the surgeon at UCSF because she felt like she was improving. Regardless, we all urged her to keep the appointment, reiterating that receiving a proper diagnosis was of utmost importance. Thankfully, she did not cancel. By the end of January Linda was feeling weak and shaky and wondering if she needed to be hospitalized.
The day before Linda went to UCSF she shared her thoughts in an email, "I have felt strongly compelled to see if my body couldn't heal with just supporting my immune system with diet, supplements and the other things that I have tried. Now I know that it cannot, and I will need to rely on conventional medicine."
|On Juliette's wedding day in 1992. There ceremony took place in Bisbee, Arizona. |
Juliette was pregnant with her oldest daughter, Avalon.
From Left to Right: Michelle, Juliette, Mom, Dad and Linda
On February 9th Juliette and I flew to California to be with Linda and to help provide assistance to Linda's partner, Mark. Linda's son drove to Petaluma to also lend his helping hands. As a team we would assist Linda with her treatments and form a plan to provide for her short-term and long-term care.
Linda was in and out of the hospital over the next couple of weeks. Juliette and I braced ourselves for the worst. We understood that Linda was at a critical intersection between life and death. Juliette and I saw Linda's malfigured breast for the first time during a medical examination. The doctor gave us the choice to leave but we declined the offer. Once we saw the disfigured breast, we would never be able to unsee it. No wonder the chiropractor and the N.D. said she had breast cancer. We could have diagnosed it too.
|What my face wanted to look like |
every time I saw Linda's breast tumor.
The doctors started prescribing lots of drugs: long term morphine, short term pain morphine, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti-nausea, steroids, laxatives (to counteract the effects of the opiates), and other meds. We kept a daily scorecard of the pills Linda took and when they were administered. The specialty equipment arrived: an oxygen condenser for the house, oxygen tanks for the car, a wheelchair, a walker, a commode, and a shower chair. As Linda said at one point, quoting the Talking Heads while lying in a hospital bed, "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco."
Then there were the countless hours spent driving between Petaluma and San Francisco. Linda was chauffeured back and forth for chemo treatments, thoracentesis to drain the lungs, MRIs, CT Scans, a PICC line insertion until the port placement, among other things. Getting Linda in and out of the car and into the house or into the hospital took a minimum of two people. The two steps outside Linda's front door leading to the driveway became the bane of our existence. She'd either have to be spotted and guided with a walker or the guys would put her in a wheelchair and carry her over the threshold and over the steps. The smallest things become the biggest obstacles.
After resisting traditional medical treatment for so long (to avoid angry patriarchal doctors that lived to chop her breasts off - her words, not mine), Linda was shocked, and perhaps a little overwhelmed, and maybe a smidge sheepish to encounter the compassionate care provided to her from the staff at UCSF. Interestingly, the team treating Linda was almost completely comprised of females. Linda's oncologist in California was Dr. Melanie Majure. To this day we refer to Dr. Majure as "the unicorn" because she is a magical being. We all loved her, especially Linda.
Within a few weeks of our arrival at Linda and Mark's house, it became apparent to Mark, Juliette, Jordan and me that Linda would need long term care and that staying in California was not sustainable. This is an excerpt of an email that I wrote to my parents on February 14th:
"Overall Linda is doing much better than when Juliette and I arrived. However, "better" is a relative term. Linda is having trouble moving, although she is standing and walking (with difficulty), slowly and with the help of a cane and the grabbing of furniture and door handles as she moves through the house from the living room to her bedroom and bathroom. She is still on oxygen 24 hours a day. She is managing pain with a regimented routine of morphine and oxycodone. She's a little hard of hearing. She doesn't always remember what she's said or what somebody else has said to her. However, she feels well enough to micro manage the house's occupants. "Do this", Do that", "Get this", "Make this", "Toss this", "Rub this", etc. And if the demand isn't met lickety-split then there is hell to pay. If a demand slips from her mouth, it's got to be done now. As in right this moment, even if it is a non-urgent matter. We're all collectively taking a deep breath and hope that the chemo works really fast to get her to a much better, less demanding place. We've got to figure out long term care for Linda because it is taking a village at this time to take care of her and not one of us has the choice of not working. We've all got responsibilities of our own and we have bills and mortgages to pay. Juliette and I cannot relocate to California. Jordan has some time before he need to return home for fire season. Mark can only take a 2 to 3 month leave and he'll be stretched too thin on his own with no back-up if she doesn't make quick progress. The hope is that the chemo will enable Linda to become self-sufficient without the need for round the clock care. The medical staff seem to think that we'll have a good idea within three to four weeks of how the chemo is reacting in Linda's body.
If Linda will need to continue to receive round the clock care, the only conclusion that we've been able to reach after looking at the situation from all angles is that Linda must move to Tucson. We don't know how resistant she will be to the proposal. We need to gather more information to verify that a move is possible. We need to investigate her insurance plans, both medical and disability, to understand if there are any issues if she were to relocate. But before we can do anything, Linda needs to get stronger and stabilize. So, we haven't broached the subject yet, even though it is the elephant in the room. We're hoping to have that conversation with Linda before Juliette and I return to Arizona. Logistically it will be a big pain in the ass to pack and move Linda. That will take a village too. And if she's still being Ms. Bossy Pants at that stage in the game then one of us (or more) will surely lose our minds."
After a couple of weeks Juliette and I returned to Arizona. As the world turns, our mother was experiencing health issues and needed assistance. In the words of Murphy's Law, "What can go wrong will go wrong." Juliette moved in with my mother and began attending to her needs. Juliette is still with her today. I returned to California to help Mark.
|Portrait of Linda taken March 2016 in her home in Petaluma, California.|
We thought this styling channeled her inner Imperator Furiosa.
Thankfully we had the support of Linda's oncologist. Dr. Majure advised that we avoid planes so we made plans to drive. Dr. Majure promised that she would do everything in her power to help us relocate and that she would strengthen Linda as much as she could for the journey ahead. The doctor was a true blessing in a time of great need. All the while I steadfastly hoped that the 1,000 mile road trip would not look like a conjoining of the films Weekend at Bernie's and Little Miss Sunshine.
|The Beaumont sisters in Lompoc, California circa 1970. Photograph taken by Paul Beaumont.|
Left to Right: Cheyenne, Juliette, Michelle, Maria and Linda.
My husband and I caravanned in two heavily laden vehicles, Linda's car and a rented van. We departed Linda's house on the last Monday in March and nine hours later we stopped for a two-day layover in La Quinta. We stayed with our dear family friends in a beautiful house situated on a golf course in a gated community. It was a blessing because we all needed time to recuperate. While Linda napped, Jay and I spent hours in the courtyard soaking up the mild sun. Between continuing to work full time, assisting with Linda's care, and packing the house on nights and weekends, it was the first time in months that I sat and did absolutely nothing. I reveled in the nothingness.
|Linda at the Taos Pueblo in August 2016.|
We arrived in Tucson on a late Thursday afternoon after a smooth drive through the desert. Linda's son, Jordan and his two buddies arrived with the moving truck and moved some of Linda's things into the house and the remainder into a large rented storage locker. Linda had her first appointment with her new Oncologist five days later. As promised, the unicorn helped to facilitate the transfer of care and all went smoothly, much to everyone's relief. I patted myself on the back that Operation Relocate Linda was a success. Upon arriving in Tucson Linda was quickly set-up with a course of ten radiation treatments to treat the metastasis to the bones.
|A sisters portrait gone completely wrong. Go ahead laugh. It's okay.|
The physician at the wound clinic said that Linda could cure the sores if she consumed a minimum of 90 grams of protein a day. It was as simple as that. We were relieved and frustrated at the same time. Why hadn't anyone with a degree in medicine mentioned this before? Within two weeks of a dietary regimen that included supplementing with Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides in addition to Jay Robb Egg White Protein Powder, the awful sores were healed. We always felt as if we were learning everything the hard way, no matter how many questions we asked or how much research we did on the internet.
With a physical therapist's assistance, Linda started taking short walks outside with the aid of a rolling walker. By early June all the home care providers had discharged Linda. And while Linda still used supplemental oxygen in the house, particularly at night, she no longer required it when we ventured away from home. We felt so free not having to drag an oxygen canister around with us wherever we went. By early July Linda had weened herself completely off morphine and was able to lift her camera again to take photographs, a lifelong passion.
|Selfie of me and Linda celebrating my birthday in June 2016.|
"For the last two weeks or so, Linda's broached the subject of driving her car again. I wasn't too excited by the idea. Linda trotted out rebuttals, such as "it will make your life easier", and my favorite: "I won't be driving that far". To which I replied, "Most accidents happen within a five mile radius of home." Granted she has been steadily improving, both physically and cognitively. She's almost completely off the heavy drugs, and what she takes, she takes at night to help her sleep. Linda is certainly more alert, but is she alert enough? I trotted out another rebuttal, "What about getting the walker in and out of the car?" In an act of defiance, she did just that. She went and pulled the walker out of the trunk unfolded it, and the folded it and put it back in the trunk.
We chatted with the doctor today about the subject. The doctor said she was fine with it as long as Linda isn't driving at night while on any meds. The doctor recommended that somebody drive with Linda a couple of times to see how she does. Linda was not too excited by this idea because, as she pointed out, I've never been a fan of her driving ability. True that. We'll give it a go and see how she does. Granted, driving in Tucson is not driving in San Francisco. Everything Linda initially wants to do is within a few miles of the house. Linda even suggested that we take a night class together at the Pima College Extension Campus that is just down the street. Even if I didn't attend with her, she could certainly drive herself there and back."
To help rehabilitate her hands (the chemo gave Linda peripheral neuropathy of the hands, in particular her left hand), she decided to take up knitting. Linda ordered a kit online that contained the yarn, special knitting needles, a pattern and access to online videos that showed how to do the project step-by-step. In the hottest part of the summer, Linda began working on a beautiful, thick red scarf that she said was for me. We'd jokingly say that she was knitting an heirloom. And, that I'd need to go to Antarctica to use it. If I didn't see her work on the project during the day, I'd say, "Get to work on my heirloom. Winter is coming." Everyone loves a little Game of Thrones humor. Now that she was feeling much better and it seemed that she had perhaps years, and not months to live, we'd say in good humor that she now had time to knit everyone in the family an heirloom.
|Linda and I took a road trip to New Mexico, the land of enchantment, in August 2016.|
Linda and I splurged and stayed at La Fonda on the Plaza so that we'd have easy access to the room in case Linda got tired and would need a nap. After the Indian Market ended on Sunday, we drove further north and a little east to make a pilgrimage to the famous Santuario de Chimayo. We rubbed the holy dirt on our foreheads and said prayers for Linda's health. We drove further north and stayed two nights in Taos at the gorgeous El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa. We visited the Taos Pueblo, the Millicent Rogers Museum (a kindred spirit, for sure) and wandered around the Nicolai Fechin House and garden. Linda's appetite had fully returned and throughout the trip we ate delicious New Mexico cuisine made with Hatch green chiles.
|Linda and I made a pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico.|
Linda invited birds to the yard by installing a large bird bath and multiple bird feeders. From her seat at the dining room table, she loved watching the goldfinches, house finches, doves, hummingbirds and the birds of prey — owls, hawks and kestrels. A pair of male and female cardinals made rare appearances in the yard, which made spotting them an exciting event.
The day before the road trip began Linda found out that she had a brain tumor. She did not have any outward signs, but the doctor called in a steroid that we had to pick up on our way out of town. Linda was to take the steroid in the event of headache or dizziness. Linda's tumor marker had been increasing but her CT scans looked good. The oncologist thought it wise to take a look at her brain and an MRI was scheduled. Of course, having breast cancer metastasize to the brain is really bad news. We didn't let the news damper our enthusiasm for the trip. After our return from New Mexico, in mid-September Linda received stereotactic radiosurgery, a radiation treatment, to eliminate the tumor. It's a fairly straightforward, fast procedure that is done in an outpatient center.
|Linda's container garden in Tucson that she tended with love and care.|
"Sisters are different flowers from the same garden." ~Unknown
I hosted Thanksgiving and we prepared a ginormous 26 pound turkey and all of Linda's favorite side dishes. At Christmas, we made sure to buy a tall gorgeous tree, a Nordmann Fir from Oregon. I pulled out all the old family ornaments, including some bedazzled heart shaped ornaments that Linda had sewn in her twenties. Linda and I took our time decorating the tree together and enjoyed reminiscing about Christmas's past. Linda's son came to visit. My daughter was home from college. Two of three of Juliette's children and her grandchildren were with us. Linda made sure that we all posed for family photos on Christmas day. I'm glad that she insisted. Based upon how she was feeling Linda mused that it would be a miracle if she lived to see next Christmas. All I could think to say was that I believed in miracles.
|Thanksgiving Day 2016 with, left to right, Michelle, Maddie, Linda and Juliette.|
Unfortunately in March more brain tumors were discovered via a routine MRI and stereotactic radiosurgery followed by mid-month. Chemotherapy typically does not cross the blood brain barrier. Therefore the only treatment for tumors in the brain is radiation. The radiation oncologist thought the best treatment option was whole brain radiation, but the oncologist instead recommended targeted radiation to save the whole brain radiation as an option for later. Whole brain radiation can be performed only once and no other radiation treatments can be received afterwards. It's a one shot deal.
My observation is that the radiation procedure was difficult for Linda both mentally and physically. Her uncomfortable state was compounded by the fact that she was having a lot of trouble with her lungs. Breathing took effort. A lot of effort. The cancer was clogging the pleural cavity that resides between the lungs and the wall of the chest. Linda once again had to have a procedure called thoracentesis, whereby excess fluid is removed by inserting a needle into the chest. The doctor recommended inserting a catheter into the chest so the lungs could be drained daily at home. Linda declined, concerned about the potential for infection. Linda was back on oxygen full time and she was disappointed that after working so hard to get off morphine, she was back to taking it consistently to manage pain and shortness of breath.
|Linda photographed at Tohono Chul in Tucson, Arizona in December 2016.|
Three days before her death Linda made the difficult choice to stop treatment and transfer to palliative care with hospice. The oncologist said that Linda perhaps had upwards of two months to live. To the contrary, once Linda made that choice, she opted for a quick exit. She metaphorically flipped the switch and the decline was steep and swift. Everyone was taken by surprise at how quickly—within 72 hours —Linda transitioned from this life to that great unknown; whatever it is that is next.
|Linda, circa 1959.|
Even though it is a futile exercise, I cannot help but wonder if Linda had immediately pursued medical treatment after discovering the tumor in her breast, if she'd now be living a full and productive life. I saw so many women independently receiving treatments at the infusion centers in San Francisco and Tucson, and then walking out, car keys in hand, to go about the routines of their normal lives. Surviving cancer is all about quick and decisive action to seek a cure.
|Juliette, Linda, Michelle and Maria at Surf Beach circa 1968.|
Photograph by our father, Paul Beaumont
And one more piece of advice, if you will indulge me the opportunity. Actively choose to be happy. Don't like your job? Find another. Don't like where you are living? Move. We tell ourselves stories that keep us trapped and stop us from pursing what we really want. As my mentor says, everything is "figuroutable". Decide and then take action. It may take a while to get from "here" to "there". That's okay. Be consistent. Slow and steady wins the race.
|The three graces enjoying Sistercation in Northern California in October 2012.|
Photograph by Mark Glasser.
Linda made her choices and then had to abide by the outcomes. There are no do-overs. She said she had no regrets. In my opinion, that's just stubbornness talking. After Linda passed away at Casa de la Luz hospice, I returned to my house followed by her son, Jordan and ex-husband, Danny. We stayed up into the wee morning hours, having a wake of sorts, drinking Jameson's Irish whiskey on the rocks while we talked and reminisced. I was lamenting the fact that Linda did not seek treatment earlier, even though everyone kept urging her to do so, especially Juliette who took the brunt of Linda's wrath for not supporting her alternative treatment plan. Danny's reply resonated deep within me. He said, "Linda's passion overwhelmed reason because her passion was so committed." Truer words have never been said.
Linda and I were about as close as two sisters could be. We were two little peas in a pod. We sounded alike, dressed alike, and shared the same sense of humor. I hope you rest in peace, Linda. We shall meet again. I loved you resolutely and completely in this lifetime, and I will continue to do so until the end of time.
"A loyal sister is worth a thousand friends." ~Unknown
|Michelle, Juliette and Linda enjoying Sistercation in Bisbee, Arizona in September 2013.|
Photograph by Fernando Serrano.