Monica Nzegwu: Lifeguard

Gaye, Monica, and I at Monica and Clement’s 20th Anniversary bash. Monica was one week post-op in this photo.

As the clock ticked down to radiation treatments, Gaye continued to recover from surgery and rebuild her strength. Her support network of friends continued to check-in. Their calls and texts kept the anxiety and self-defeat from eating her alive. 

Nothing to it, right?

It is so easy to fall into despair, especially when reading the heartbreak so many women endure on this hard, hard road. In fact the breast cancer forums include a contingent of women who take issue with the term “survivor.” So, it is a tough road and, yes, the calls and texts were a lifeline. One of the most vocal supporters had traveled that road before Gaye. 

Once upon a time…

Two jobs ago Monica was a new director in an almost-all-white hospital business office. Gaye, the only other woman of color, had been on the job six months. But due to latent shyness Gaye hadn’t made any friends. 

Then, one day she heard a group of women negotiate where they would go for lunch. Used to being next-to invisible as the rare woman of color in a hospital business office, Gaye focused on work and minded her own business. Then, out of nowhere, a woman stuck her head into Gaye’s office and said, “We’re going to lunch. If you are coming, get your purse and let’s go.”

At this point they hadn’t had a conversation. In fact Gaye barely knew Monica’s name. But who could turn down an invitation like that? From there Gaye and Monica became fast friends, talking daily. 

Then the hospital they worked for began to falter. Payroll was missed, then delayed, and then missed again. In the mad dash for the door, everyone said they would stay in touch. But Gaye didn’t expect much. People have lives. Everyone is busy. 

Even in a medical town like Houston with hundreds of hospitals in the surrounding county, job changes shake folks up. Licenses, degrees, and specialized skills/experience help a bit. Still, human nature is to keep your head down and hope for the best for everyone else.  

Friends look out for each other

But Monica isn’t the head-down type. She called to see if Gaye found something. She pointed Gaye at a position at the hospital where she landed. Soon enough, Gaye had a job right back with her friend. They fell in together just like old times. She listened to Gaye vent about the other coworkers and Monica had Gaye’s back against false-friends.  

Then Monica moved on to a new job and Gaye stayed. They remained friends, talking regularly. It’s a big deal because Gaye is not a telephone person and only seldom talks to me on the phone.

Party with a purpose

When Monica invited Gaye and I to celebrate her 20th wedding anniversary, it was a no-brainer. Monica was so much fun to hang out with, who wouldn’t want to party with her and her family?  

And the party was an absolute blast. A ball of energy, Monica met us at the door before flying off to check in on-each-and-every guest, among hundreds of people. She wanted to be sure everyone had a good time—including herself. 

Who has time for that?

About one month after the party Monica said she was in breast cancer treatment. At the time of the party she was just one week post-op from a double mastectomy. When Gaye pressed why Monica hadn’t told her sooner, hadn’t allowed Gaye to do more, Monica brushed her off. With friends and family flying in, many from across the globe, she had been preoccupied with the party. 

Smiling through the pain

But the signs had been there. We could see them in hindsight. Beaming while greeting her guests, Monica still had the IV port. Pain still peaked around the edges of her gait. But Monica had people to talk to, many she and her husband, Clement, hadn’t seen in years. When she wasn’t working the room, she was on the dance floor. All night.

Gaye was one of the few people Monica confided in at all. But Gaye’s experience with breast cancer as a clinician was limited. There was no one in her family with breast cancer. The diagnosis scared the hell out of her. 

Monica took it in stride. Too optimistic, too busy, she charged on. Gaye did what she could to support her friend.

Their conversations slowed down a bit. Monica had good days and a lot of bad days. Chemo kicks cancer’s ass but it kicks the patient’s ass, too. Monica struggled with chemo and Gaye struggled with what to say and do. 

Darkest before…

Then at the bottom, when things looked dire, Monica didn’t want tears and she had no patience for sympathy. Monica wanted to find out what was going on in Gaye’s office (where she knew everyone). She wanted to gossip and laugh. She wanted to talk about anything but cancer.

Gaye texted her. Memes and jokes seemed superficial but you do what you can. She asked Monica what we could bring her to eat. Monica said she could eat barbecue and Gaye leapt to do something for her friend. Gaye continued to offer anything we could do for Monica. Then inspiration hit. If we baked a pan of ziti that would be one less meal Clement would have to cook for the family. 

And we visited to lift her spirits. Mostly that consisted of her talking and laughing with Gaye and us listening. None of it seemed enough. 

The chemo weakened Monica and turned down her volume. I can’t lie, I worried for her and her family. Survival is not guaranteed. We gave Monica space and time to recover her strength. 

After some worrisome days, their conversations resumed. At that point Monica did discuss her journey. She wanted to talk about the end of chemo and her battle back. As the conversations progressed they talked less and less about cancer, chemo, and recovery and had more “what I’m going to do when…” conversation. 

I overheard bits and pieces. Gaye would recap with me to catch up with Monica. But the day I heard them talking about designer handbags, when I heard the excitement in both their voices, while they looked at bags online, I knew Monica was on the comeback.

The world turns

When Gaye was diagnosed, Monica was one of the first people she called. They cried together as Monica re-lived her own battle while talking Gaye through hers. When Gaye got low, Monica wouldn’t let her dwell there. She continued to call and text. 

Gaye said that when Monica was sick, she felt like the phone calls and texts, food and visits, all seemed meaningless compared to what Monica faced. But in the wake of her own illness, Gaye says she now understands how much those gestures matter. Those moments, those conversations are sustaining.

As with Monica. Gaye went through a period where she was too weak for conversation. Too fatigued to respond to texts. But Monica never forgot Gaye. I believe that encouragement helped Gaye with her “what I want to do when…” plans.

Rough days gave way to less-rough days and then to good days. Gaye began to return calls and catch up with friends. When I heard Gaye laughing with Monica on the phone I could breathe. But when I heard them talk about handbags, I knew Gaye was on her own comeback. 

Monica showed Gaye how to live through the fear and smile past the pain. More than a friend, she was Gaye’s coach fighting cancer AND living while doing it. She remains the single biggest influence for Gaye while maintaining perspective. 


  • You never know who your guide will be. They don’t always know, either.
  • Pay it forward. You learn a lesson to pass on to someone else.
  • Keep living. Keep learning. Keep reaching out to others.

Stay positive. Stay strong.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s