It wasn’t until I got to know Anjali better that I realized how much it took for her to approach me in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center last summer.
“You’re that chick who writes The New York Times column about cancer, right?” she said to me in what I came to know as her trademark semi-sarcastic tone.
Aside from our bald heads, Anjali and I were different in almost every way. She was born in a village in India that I had never heard of and moved to the United States at age 12. I was born in New York City speaking French at home. She became estranged from her family at a young age but managed to put herself through graduate school, renting a room at the local Y.M.C.A. when money was short. I was fortunate to have a supportive home life and scholarships that allowed me to graduate from Princeton University. Anjali was entirely alone when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 38. Her parents had passed away, and her brother, her best potential bone marrow match, never returned her calls. It was never a question that my younger brother would step up to the plate to be my bone marrow donor.
Our personalities didn’t necessarily mesh either. Anjali was intensely self-reliant and defiant — the kind of person that you really wanted as an ally but wouldn’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of an argument with. She was tough. I had seen her make nurses quiver — even cry — when she suspected they weren’t telling her the whole story. This was something I’d never done. But I admired that she stood up for herself. (She was also incredibly private, which is why I have not used her last name here.)
At first, Anjali was a cancer friend with whom I could connect over our shared diagnosis. We had the same disease: a rare blood disorder known as myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of cancer that usually appears in old age. And just one month before meeting, we had both undergone successful bone marrow transplants. One of the first jokes I can remember Anjali making as we looked around the waiting room full of people our parents’ age is that we must be old souls to be so young with this disease.
Over time, she became my best friend and confidante. My parents even adopted her as an honorary family member. As we lay in our beds battling fatigue and nausea, we developed a sense of online communion. These were the types of exchanges Anjali and I had daily: “Quick question: Do you also get tired a lot? I am so tired during the day, it just baffles me. Is it only me?” Anjali wrote to me in an e-mail. These short messages soon turned into long, daily Skype sessions where we would daydream about our cancer-free futures, play intensely competitive games of online Scrabble and, sometimes, even fall asleep with our computer monitors still turned on.
But 100 days after transplant, life changed dramatically for both of us. After two years of grueling treatments and long hospitalizations, my doctors pronounced me cancer-free. Anjali’s bone marrow biopsy results, however, showed that her cancer had returned. A few months later I listened to Anjali’s doctor — who also happened to be my doctor — tell her something I’d only ever believed happened in movies: her disease had become too advanced and was no longer treatable. She had weeks left to live.
It was the first time she cried in my presence, a rare display of vulnerability in a life that required her to act tough and to fight for everything. Even in that moment she couldn’t help but reflect on the absurdity of the situation: “You mean I’m not gonna live forever?” she asked me with a smirk.
On Valentine’s Day, Anjali passed away in the hospital with my mother and me by her side. I think about Anjali every day and I’m still hurting. I’ll never forget her fighting spirit or her quick wit. I don’t yet have words to articulate what it was like to watch my new friend die of the same disease that I have. To me what was new was seeing cancer from the caregiver’s chair. But I do know that her story is not unique. Like many others, she left the world before her time.
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced su-LAKE-uh ja-WAD) is a 24-year-old writer who lives in New York City. Her column, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicling her experiences as a young adult with cancer, appears regularly on Well. Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter.