As told to Marnie Goodfriend
Up until 2016, I was an active and healthy 42-year-old woman who biked, swam, kayaked, practiced yoga, and followed a strict paleo and organic diet. As a mother to four boys and a nurse, my daily planner was packed with work, family and friend time, church and community activities. There was no history of cancer in my family, and I’d never even broken a bone. “You’re the last person to get sick,” people said when I told them I’d been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer (MBC).
At first, I was completely shocked and devastated. It’s literally the last thing I thought I would hear; I thought I just had a cyst. My ex-husband had just left me and I felt super-alone. Honestly, all I could do was cry and pray to God. As a nurse, I was trying to figure out what my next steps were. I struggled not only with how much my life had dramatically changed overnight but also with being dependent on others for my basic needs.
In 2019, I met and fell in love with Chuck, who is also a stage 4 cancer thriver, and we got married in 2020. We supported each other in ways that perhaps others couldn’t relate to, but there were times when our conditions were too much for us to handle on our own. When friends and family said, “Let me know if you need anything,” I never followed up because I didn’t know how to respond with actionable tasks.
In May 2020, I broke my neck and learned that the cancer had spread throughout my body and had gotten into my spine. Over the next three months, I started chemo and radiation. I lost my hair and had burning in my esophagus, which resulted in me needing a feeding tube. Someone had to physically stay with me at all times, so I began asking people to come over and bring meals with them to give Chuck a chance to run errands or go to the gym or for a walk. By that fall, I was back to eating and enjoying the outdoors again, jet skiing, zip lining and kayaking.
I experienced another compression fracture, which required a spinal fusion and femur pinning, and was confined to a wheelchair for over three months. Again, my friends and family were there for us — making meals, cleaning the house and running errands. Without them, keeping up with our daily lives would have taken a significant toll on our family. Less than six months later, I was riding my electric bike, taking in Arizona’s painted desert where I’d been living since 2015.
Through all of this, my friend Allison was supporting me by giving us grocery gift cards, setting up a prayer chain and keeping me company. She also set up a Meal Train in partnership with Magnolia account for Chuck and me. While I love to cook and go food shopping, it was often too much for me to do with everything I had going on, and given that we had two growing teenage sons living at home who needed to eat all the time. That was the beginning of our journey with Meal Train. It was such a relief being able to organize and schedule meal requests, note my vegan diet, and post the link on Facebook so people could donate directly to us online whenever we needed it. During Covid-19, people purchased gift cards and meal services for us through my page so that my husband and I could safely social distance.
Hannah Keels (left) and Allison Disarufino in 2019.
Being diagnosed with cancer is the scariest thing in the world, and it’s the last place you want to be going at it alone. I’m a doer whose love language is helping others, but I began to realize what a gift it was to receive love and support, too. A meal is still one of the most helpful things for people to give, and it has been essential to my journey. Chuck and I often have doctors’ appointments that are late in the day. So knowing that we have a meal coming means there’s one less thing for us to worry about. As a cancer patient, it’s easy to feel like you’ve lost a sense of control or independence. Asking for help no longer feels uncomfortable; it empowers me to advocate for my health and ensures that my family is taken care of.
People are not created to be alone, so when others reach out and offer to spend time with me, that connection is so healing. Part of the journey is being vulnerable — letting people in and telling them that I need them. It’s an opportunity to mend relationships that haven’t been as strong and grow them. One of the best boosts for my emotional wellness is when people drop by my house just to have a conversation. Over the holidays, I was in bed for 27 days straight. My husband set up our camping table in my bedroom and friends came over with meals almost every night for a week.
We’re not put on this Earth to live in isolation; we’re here to thrive and survive as a community. Every morning, I wake up with breath in my lungs. Thanks to the help I’ve received from friends and family, I can get up and live, whatever living looks like that day, whether it’s ziplining or walking my dog. It’s a beautiful day and a beautiful world that we live in when you let love in.
Cancer thrivers Hannah and Chuck Keels on a 75-day, 3,000-mile trip to raise money for cancer research, 2022.
This resource was created with support from Eisai.
Meal Train is a registered trademark of Meal Train LLC.
Meal Train® in partnership with Magnolia is supported by Eisai.