On the December 3, 2011 morning that lung cancer took my beautiful sister, Connie Defalco-Blanchette, she had planned to watch a movie that day with her son Jason, who had driven hours to be with her. In her mind, death was not a possibility that she ever really gave in to, and certainly not that day. I was thousands of miles away, as I live in Los Angeles and she lives in Ottawa, Canada. Sadly, and I feel guilt about this still, I was not there at the end, but many of my brothers and sisters were, as well as her only surviving son and her husband.
From the day of her diagnosis to the morning when she simply finally let go nearly three years later, Connie never truly accepted that her illness was incurable. That came as no surprise to me because I knew that Connie was a tough cookie; a fighter. She had lost her youngest son Chris to brain cancer when he was only 13 and that is something you never get over. But it also made her a survivor and a fighter. She always stood up for the underdog in life. This time, the underdog was her and she was determined to fight cancer. She was only 55 when she learned of her cancer. She had quit smoking more than a decade ago, and was in fantastic health and great shape. But cancer was the Goliath she could not defeat.
Connie embraced life and had many friends. And before her own illness, she helped many people cope with loss as well. When one co-worker lost his daughter to a genetic disease, she provided support and strength from her own loss of a child. When her good friend at work lost one of her young, identical twin sons to bone cancer, Connie again helped her through the worst days and beyond. On the day she was hospitalized to have part of her lung removed, Connie recorded a video message of hope and comfort for our mutual best friend Sue was in the final days of her battle with ovarian cancer.
I’m not sure to this day whether that fighting spirit in Connie created hope that kept her going for three years, or if it kept her fighting beyond what most of us could bear. At first there was hope; the cancer was spotted early and a portion of her lung was removed and she had chemo. For months she was fine. However, later scans did find that some cells had spread to the lung lining, and were untreatable. The nodules rubbed at every breath. Though she suffered immense pain, she was able to live her last months at home in dignity and comfort, surrounded by family, her dog, and many friends who never, ever stopped visiting and calling. Her husband Ray did a great job of caring for her, and that was not an easy task as she also suffered from anxiety attacks and depression, and then the morphine she had to take daily for pain cause all sorts of physical problems that probably hastened her death. But through it all, she never spoke of dying and never really said her goodbyes, or thanked those who supported her in the way that I know she would have wanted to.
So on her behalf, I am saying thank you to the many heroes in the story of caring for Connie during her illness and in particular to one my sisters, Nancy, who is to me a true hero in Connie’s care.
Nancy runs her own business, so she has more flexibility to come and go than others who work full time for companies. So, she decided from the day Connie was diagnosed that she was going to be as involved as possible in helping care for her. For three years, Nancy made the 40-minute drive into town to accompany Connie to every oncology appointment, every chemo session. She never missed one. If the news was good, they’d have a celebratory lunch and she’d stick around and tuck her in. If the news was bad, she’d be there for her and stick around and tuck her in, or even sleep over. She would just show up all cheery and positive with all the ingredients to cook a hearty meal, even when Connie was barely eating a morsel. Nancy also took on the difficult job of keeping our large family and extended family informed of all major developments, relieving Connie’s stressed-out husband of that duty. Nancy got to be the bearer of news, both good and bad. She phoned, she emailed and she skyped. When Connie could no longer speak on the phone or visit with people, she became her voice. We commiserated together and that helped me feel part of the journey even when I could not go home to visit.
I was able to spend a week with Connie a few months before she died. We watched girlie movies, even though I’d have to keep nudging her to stay awake. We took short walks, and she was even able to go to a restaurant with all her sisters for a birthday lunch. It wasn’t much, but it was so important to both of us, that last time together.
As much as I admire my sister Connie for her strength and determination, and keep that vision in my mind, I admire my sister Nancy even more for her endless compassion and can-do attitude. Caring for people with lung cancer is not easy as you watch the person you once knew slip away. Love and hope were there for us all on this terrible journey. Connie will never be forgotten.