My Cancer Framily – Jo Ann Madigan


Happy birthday, Jo Ann! You mean way more to me than any peak into our story can say, but here ya go anyway… 

Stepping out from the bone marrow transplant clinic at UCSF into the jam of bodies crisscrossing Parnassus Avenue, there was only one thing on my mind – everything.

Should I just get back to work and let the cancer run its course? How long could I live in this body and off my savings? Should I move now and lower my rent? Where?? … I wanna quit treatment so bad.

“Where did you go?” Jo Ann asked. “What are you doing up there?” she jokingly sang at me as she twirled her finger up for effect.

Jo Ann knew where I went … inward and down. She was the only person that I let see me like that.

I was deep in treatment for my second cancer diagnosis and had fallen into the necessary habit of masking my fears behind an endless shuffle of younger cancer patient caricatures – the assertive but still-laughing patient, the struggling but ever productive co-worker, the wise youngin in a crowd of elderly patients, or the sensible dying friend who makes you feel guilty about your petty nonsense – people basically saw me however they needed.

Jo Ann was the only one who saw the full range of what cancer did to me.

Stem cell aphaeresis“What he said was that you shouldn’t give up …” Jo Ann said, repeating what my oncologist had just told us after another exhausting failed attempt at extracting stem cells from the painfully unyielding catheter in my neck. Her measured words staked the pros and cons again. But then she came to an abrupt full stop. Seeing that my face had fallen, she ditched what she was saying right there on the sidewalk, fixed her big compassionate eyes on my face, and wrapped me in a hug that pulled me in to set down my worries for a minute without trying to smother the truth.

Within ten seconds of that hug, we were laughing inappropriately again. We joked so damn hard about every damn thing that even my doctor remarked, “Where did we find you two?”

Well, she found me through her friend, who found me through my friend, about eight years before the first time cancer tried to kill me. At the time, Jo Ann Madigan was a successful nonprofit executive and long-time social justice activist, who had spent decades leading the charge for women’s health at Planned Parenthood, Breast Cancer Action, and countless other women’s rights organizations. I was merely her first personal fitness trainer, who was captivated by her endless stories of fierce protests. Ironic that she ended up coaching me, her former coach.

In the absence of family during my cancer struggles, Jo Ann stepped up in a way that I could not have ever imagined nor anticipated that I needed. Lucky for me, she had just retired from professional life when I was diagnosed. Jo Ann became my framily. She still goes with me to every medical appointment that she can, and I debrief her immediately following the ones she can’t. In my most critical moments, Jo Ann advocated for me and gave me the practical support that our health care system assumes patients come readily equipped to handle. But most important, she gave me love, empathy, and wise friendship that often kept me from giving up.

And then there is her David. The first time I met David Chatfield, he was the executive director at Californians for Pesticide Reform and had just walked from downtown San Francisco into the subterranean personal training studio on Polk Street, where Jo Ann and I worked out together. The moment they spotted each other, the two of them immediately lit up as if reuniting after years apart instead of the actuality of a 12-hour work day. And that’s how crushed out on each other they’ve always been.

Being near that kind of big love was so healing in some of my darkest cancer moments. It radiates indiscriminately onto everybody in its path. And why shouldn’t the love of your life thrill you every day for four decades and more?

When cancer hit, the value of friends who had been on the planet longer than me became obvious. Being a younger adult with cancer, I was and continue to be the only person any of my peers know who has had cancer twice. I hesitate to tell healthy people my age what cancer has done to me, because I usually either get back *crickets*, a mad Jo Ann and meinappropriate response, or I gotta deal with having secondarily traumatized them. But Jo Ann had already been strong for countless family members and friends before me. Even though she shed tears when she was scared for me, I didn’t have to worry that any cancer thing that happened to me would destroy her.

Every cancer person needs a courageous Jo Ann – someone who goes wherever cancer takes you, even though it scares her too. We would each move about the world with so much less fear of living in the unknown, and so much more intention centered in the present.

Thank you, Jo Ann Madigan … for bringing all that you are into my life, for everything you do to make the world better, and for being unapologetically and strikingly you. We may no longer live near each other, but every time we talk, I can still feel your bright eyes smiling at me through that fringe of gorgeous lashes whenever you’re fixing to make me laugh again. I hope your birthday and this next year fill your life full of everything you need and nothing that you don’t. Thank you for believing in me, and for being the beautiful, astute, compassionate, graceful, and caring woman that you are. I love you more than these words can hold.

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