Tahoma arrived on March 24, 2003, the night before her first MAb425 treatment. Deborah's nerves were on edge, thrill and anxiety overlapping, and she arrived at Tahoma's hotel room armed with a toothbrush, pj's, a bag of fresh fruit, and no idea what to say. The door opened, they whooped each other's names, and the five-foot-tall Tahoma leaped at the statuesque Deborah, arms open for a hug. This powerhouse of a woman Deborah had been speaking to all these months was tiny. "You're just a little fidget!" Deborah said.
The women fell into slumber party mode instantly. They shared a slice of double-fudge cake from room service and watched TV, taking turns analyzing David Letterman's psyche. They talked about exercise and men and politics. The hotel arrangement turned out to be prudent after treatments made Tahoma dangerously radioactive; when lab workers ran a Geiger counter over her head and bladder, it sounded a furious bang bang bang. Nonetheless, throughout Tahoma's stay, whenever Deborah didn't have appointments, the women were inseparable. Tahoma's problems had brought them together, but Deborah found herself confiding things she'd never told another soul.
One more thing cemented their bond: The treatment worked. By April of 2004, when this article went to press, Tahoma had lived 17 months beyond her diagnosis. She showed no signs of tumor in follow-up scans and was back to riding horses, working on a friend's farm, and filling in for other nurse practitioners. No one uses the word cure with this kind of cancer, but as Tahoma says, "I've exceeded my expiration date."
The treatment came with its share of drawbacks. Tahoma sustained some neurocognitive damage. "When I get tired, I may start stuttering," she says, "and sometimes I can't do math. I'm not the most ego-driven person, but there are certain things, like my ability to remember things, that were a big loss for me. But really, death versus having a few neurological deficits—I'll take the deficits."
And she needs speech therapy. The trouble is, her insurance has run out. And the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department won't waste resources on someone with a diagnosis of "terminal." She's looking for an alternative she can pay for herself.
Another twist is that Tahoma spent all that time preparing for death—and didn't die. She was jolted, as many people with terrible diseases are, into a greater appreciation for all the world has to offer. "That brightness of going 'Wow, I almost died' is starting to fade," Tahoma says. "The intellectual part of me understands that's appropriate, but the emotional part doesn't want to lose it."
Both she and Deborah see the story of their friendship as one of blessings and miracles and magic. Deborah also sees it as a testimonial to the power of the written word...and something more. "What can we call the thing that makes a person return a call to an eccentric stranger?" she asks. "Is it risk taking? Is it something spiritual—that sympathy outside us that bends the path toward we know not what? It is both of those, but the third thing is a faith in the goodness of other women. Sisterhood is a watchword of feminism, of course, and I learned it first in a Catholic girls' school in Cleveland, where the world was run by powerful women who—untrue to stereotype—were loving and reliable and fun. They taught us, against the grain, to form strong bonds with one another. I've loved a number of men in my life, but the thing that makes me feel safe is my trusty gaggle of girlfriends."
Lise Funderburg is a writer in Philadelphia.
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