Sunday, September 28, 2014

Soldier, Interrupted.

I will never forget the first time I saw her.

I had recently returned home after my second hospitalization in less than a month.  This time for sepsis after a surgical site infection put an end to my breast reconstruction efforts - and very nearly to me.  Still encased in bandages with more drain tubes protruded from my body than an extra from a sci-fi movie  -  it seemed impossible to imagine this broken body would ever be whole once again.  And as insomnia held me captive within the cocoon of blankets and pillows where I took refuge, I searched the internet in vain for answers to questions that I could not yet voice.

And then, one day, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.

The picture was a gritty black and white image of a nude woman standing in a doorway.   Deep scars  laced across her young chest, mirroring my own fresh wounds.  And I could not help but see myself in her eyes - or at least a vision of what could be.

This woman was unequivocally beautiful.  

I cannot tell you how just long I stared at her image, trying to reconcile my own mutilated chest with this portrait of strength and resilience.  Time dripped like honey as these two dramatically different versions of self were gradually superimposed and allowed to meld.

Photo by David Jay
Finally, in a narcotic-induced haze I read through every single comment listed beneath that picture.  And though the majority were kind and supportive, there were also the predictably negative comments made by the anonymous trolls who lurk on the inter webs. 

Their words struck a nerve as raw as my own unhealed wounds and I cried - hard - as I came face to face with dark fears I had yet to verbalize even to myself.

"I'd kill myself if that happened to me".  "Is that your brother?"  "Nice tits".

Some of the words were so harsh I winced from the pain. And yet, they could not detract from the truth.

This woman was still stunning.  She was strong and brave. Most importantly she was still standing after cancer had done its worst.  There she was, gazing back as if to say "Is that all you've got?"  

Seeing this image was the first time I had ever seen mastectomy scars portrayed honestly.  It was through this portrait that I would learn to see myself in this same lovely lighting and not just the neon glare of a medical textbook.  Later I would learn the image was part of a larger collection by David Jay, aptly named the SCAR Project and the brave women he portrayed instantly became my idols for their fearlessness and ability to face this disease with such brutal honesty.
Barbie Ritzco in Soldier, Interrupted. By David Jay

One of the women - Barbie Ritzco - made a particularly strong impression on me.   She was a member of some of the support groups I belonged to and had made a name for herself as a leader in the breast cancer community.  Her nickname there was The Warrior Queen - and the title was well deserved.

Barbie was  diagnosed with stage IIIb invasive breast cancer at the age of 36 while deployed in Afghanistan as a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marines. There were no medical facilities where she was stationed and because she did not want to leave her fellow Marines, she chose to wait several months to address the lump she had found in her left breast.  Finally, she could wait no longer and in February of 2011 Barbie was sent home to begin the battle of her life. Though her treatments were intense and the tumor did not respond to chemotherapy, Barbie said it was being forced to abandon her post with the Marines which she struggled with the most.

Barbie was a soldier in every sense of the word.

This year I was lucky enough to get to know her a little - though our paths never crossed in "real life".  She was spunky and kind and a little rough around the edges - and much, much tougher than I could ever imagine being.  She ran marathons while still undergoing radiation treatment and was a single mother of a young boy.  Besides participating in the SCAR project, Barbie was a fierce advocate for breast cancer issues and BRCA gene testing.  To further educate others, she shared her story in The Pink Moon Lovelies:  Empowering Stories of Survival, a book written by her friend, Nicki Boscia Durlester.  Barbie also co-founded Flat and Fabulous, a support group dedicated to women who choose to forgo reconstructive therapy after mastectomy - the first of its kind.

We bonded over tattoos, our shared decision to forgo reconstruction and a disdain for pink fluff.  I followed her accomplishments as she prepped for the Tough Mudder run and cheered her on when she was named Ambadassador for Handful - an awesome lingerie company that offers options for mastectomy forms.  And I also followed along this summer when she announced that her cancer had returned - and this time it had spread to her liver.
This was the sunset in Cd'A on the day Barbie died.
I have to say, this was one night when pink just seemed fitting.
Photo by Alex Castagno

But we knew Barbie had been in tough spots before and pulled through with flying colors.  And, doing what we do best, the entire breast cancer community cheered her on and stayed updated as she once again faced aggressive cancer treatments.  The treatments were severe and she became ill - critically ill - and was intubated in the intensive care unit.

Typical of Barbie, she fought back, grew stronger and was discharged home.  And as tough, positive and full of life as she was, we knew that if anyone could get through this, it was Barbie.

But tough doesn't matter when it comes to cancer.

Barbie Ritzco died Friday September 26th, surrounded by loved ones. And our hearts, collectively, were broken.

There is, of course, no question that Barbie lived an amazing life.  She accomplished more in her years than most of us could in 10 lifetimes.  She was strong in the face of adversity and she did her best to make a difference. She was a good Marine and a great mom. She wanted desperately to live.  Barbie Ritzco was her own woman.  Barbie Ritzco was all of us.

And she is gone.

So rest easy, Soldier.  Your job is done.  We who are left will carry your post - but we will never forget.

Fuck Cancer.