“I had to make a choice right then and there to be happy and positive, or not,” Jamie Goldfarb said the other day at a patio café in Old Takoma. She wore neither hat nor scarf to cover her brightly bare head, the result of a daring new therapy for her melanoma.
A year ago Jamie had walked up and down the midway of Takoma Park’s annual street festival, reveling in the extra exertions so she could hurry along the birth of her first child, Kai, who obliged a few days later. Kai was three months and six days old when, on January 19, the day before Jamie was return to work from her maternity leave, she received her diagnosis of an aggressive skin cancer already spread to her liver.
“It couldn’t be happening to me – that was my first reaction. It couldn’t be me because I had a new baby,” she recalled. “But it was happening to me.”
In that moment, or anyway in the next few days, the bashful Jamie decided she would start writing a blog — she called it “Melanoma Mom” — as a way to force herself to hang onto her optimism. “I knew the emotional struggle was going to be more difficult than the physical struggle, and I knew expressing myself in words would help keep me strong,” she said.
In her first blog entry she conceded that, even though she was young (age 34) and otherwise healthy, her initial treatments at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center, requiring week-long injections of drugs in a hospital bed, would not be easy. “My understanding is that those three weeks are terrible. My body will go through hell,” she wrote. “They said that they keep upping the doses of the drugs until I can’t take it anymore or my kidneys give out, whichever happens first.”
The difference between a blog and the personal journals of generations past, of course, is that everyone in the world can read anything on-line, in this case starting with the neighbors who live on the same block of Poplar Avenue as Jamie and her husband Jeff.
On a day in early February, while Jeff warmed up their car for a return trip to the treatment center, Jamie noticed that next door and across the street, on the lawns of Susan Pitcher and her sister Beth and also on Linda Gordon’s lawn, someone had stuck in the hard ground curious-looking signs that said, “HOPE.”
A week later, on Jamie’s return to Poplar Avenue, her body aching, she was thrown for a loop to see a multitude of the same signs, one on every front yard on her block.
“All the credit, or the blame, goes to Susan and Linda,” Beth explained. Susan had designed the signs as a friendly thumbs-up to Jamie, and Linda had gone door-to-door with a plea for neighborly solidarity. “Linda wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Beth said.
Beth herself wondered if the three of them might be taking uncalled-for liberties. Might a young woman who was fighting for her life and who ordinarily likes to keep personal matters to yourself feel overwhelmed by the public attention? “That’s how I would feel, I think,” Beth said.
Jamie did feel overwhelmed but also overjoyed. “I will never forget what it was like seeing all those signs. It was amazing. I felt so loved,” she said.
During the succeeding weeks Jamie developed an almost surreal relationship with her neighbors and a number of strangers who began to follow her chronicles. “It’s weird, dealing with your own mortality and going about your daily life and also sharing it with a lot of people you don’t really know but who support you with e-mails,” Jamie said.
One of the people who traded messages, a man named Jake who is also trying to survive melanoma, arranged a dinner date at Jamie and Jeff’s house. Jake brought his wife and two young children. “Like me, I have no doubt that Jake will be cured,” Jamie reported. “I’ve also realized I have stopped feeling sorry for my cancer brothers and sisters. I have stopped pitying them (us). Instead I have an incredible respect for their bravery…They have looked their own mortality in the face and have told it to go F itself.”
This was part of the positive spin that Jamie tried relentlessly to put on the twists of her own fight. On April 11 she reported that her latest round of injections had been less arduous. “It was by far my easiest time physically,” she blogged, adding wanly. ”But the doctors decided to stop on the seventh dose due to hallucinations, which this time were math equations all over Jeff’s face and a hallway full of pink butterflies.”
The reality was that, for all of medical tortures Jamie willingly endured, her prognosis had not improved, and every day, through the rest of the spring and the summer, even as she looked out on the HOPE signs and sent out upbeat updates, her cancer remained ominously present.
Early in September her doctors presented her with an option in the category of please-God-please. They wanted to destroy her entire immune system and replace it with something suggested by her own body’s defenses. They would take a select number of white blood cells that, according to their theory, were attacking a tumor in her neck and duplicate them by the billions. These killer cells would take the place of her regular cells.
Jamie agreed and again returned for more brutal treatments. The previous ones had thinned her hair, but this one left her bald, and in a gesture obviously romantic but also heart-wrenching her husband asked the NIH nurses to shave his head as well.
When the treatments ended, on September 26, Jamie wrote, “For now I am happily exhausted at home with my family, confident that my new super cells are flying around killing tumors while the rest of my body recovers from the harshness of this treatment. This is not a criticism, it is just a fact. I am thankful for the extremes my doctors are going to to cure me and I am thankful to my body to taking it like a champ.”
The doctors asked her to check in monthly through the rest of the year, but it will be November, at the earliest, before they can determine if the white-cell transplant is the solution.
“Right now my whole world is Kai and Jeff and our neighbors and my parents and my in-laws and everyone else who is supporting me,” Jamie said.
She blinked and looked away and let out a few tears. “I don’t believe a positive attitude will cure me. That’s up to medical science. But a positive attitude keeps me from giving up. And I will never give up. I have a son to take care of.”