SAN FRANCISCO — It was a Thursday morning in mid-November, and here was Janet Sollod, diminutive and fit, rushing up a set of stairs to see her friend Alison for the first time since Alison had been admitted to the Zen Hospice house.
At the time, Alison had just taken her pain medication. She tried to lift her voice but could not.
Sollod told her to rest; she knew how hard it could be to stay awake. “I’ve felt the same way after chemo and surgeries,” she said.
In a way, her arrival at her friend’s bedside was the culmination of a process that began 10 years earlier. That was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time, at age 32.
Shortly after starting treatment, Sollod discovered a support group for young women with breast cancer, Bay Area Young Survivors, or BAYS. She showed up at her first meeting, nervous and quiet, to find a dozen others pulled into a circle of armless chairs, cradling cups of tea and sharing stories about dating, treatment strategies, parenting with cancer.
Sollod, a pediatrician, felt herself avoiding the women whose cancers had metastasized, because she was terrified of speaking to others who, to her mind, were dying.
A year later, however, a scan revealed a tumor on her own liver. It happened again the following year. She was now among the women with advanced cancer.
Around this time, she crossed paths with Alison at their doctor’s office. Alison told Sollod about a new subgroup of BAYS — “Mets in the City” — for young women with metastatic breast cancer. The meetings were held in members’ living rooms. Comfier chairs, fewer people, healthier snacks, wine.
A woman named Courtney often hosted, and here, Sollod said, is what it was like: “Oh my God — so much laughter.”
“Hysterical, intimate stuff about post-menopausal sex. Funny, bad stories about health care providers. My friend told her doctor about maybe signing a one-year lease for an apartment, and he told her maybe a three-month lease would be more reasonable. We can laugh at that because we get it. Our other friends would be horrified that we think that’s funny. We’re like, ‘No, that’s really, really funny.’”
They ended meetings then, as they still do today, holding hands and sustaining a moment of silence, she said, “to honor what we shared.”
The women began socializing. There were hikes and happy hours. Courtney scored nun costumes and the sisters crashed the Castro for a “Sound of Music” sing-along.
Not long afterward, Sollod noticed Courtney’s eyes occasionally crossing at random moments. Sollod said nothing, but she knew. Courtney confirmed it at a group meeting one night: Her cancer had spread to her brain, and her time was likely short.
“I cried and cried,” Sollod said.
The longer the women are in the group, the stronger their ties with others — and the more likely it is that they will be the next to go. They don’t focus on that, Sollod said, but they do recognize both the tragic and the powerful rhythm of it — how they’re building support for their dying days among a group of women who best understand what one another might want.
A friend last year asked Sollod to speak at a medical conference about her experience with cancer, and she devoted much of her talk to her thoughts around dying, and the culture’s approach to it.
In her speech — which Alison helped her write — she described choosing a gravesite with her mom, and the great solace she has gleaned from knowing where she will be buried. The site even is the focus of a music video, performed and sung by Sollod’s friend, the noted Harvard scientist Pardis Sabeti, in which Sollod is featured.
And yet, for all the proximity to death, the fear is no less sharp.
“It’s one thing to talk about it and theorize and plan for it, and a totally other thing to have it really happening,” she said. “At a high level, I feel acceptance. I get it and I’m there. But on that deep gut level, it’s really scary.”
Despite her own fears, she said, she is ready to stand with others. And she was ready when Alison beckoned.
Alison had been one of Sollod’s closest friends in the Mets group. They went to movies together. Sollod coaxed her to the top of Mt. Whitney. When Alison was dropped from a clinical trial in Los Angeles in 2016, Sollod flew down and drove her back to San Francisco.
Her decline continued. So did Sollod’s. Two years ago, a scan revealed “an explosion of tumors” in Sollod’s liver, and last year it spread to the bones throughout her body.
Sollod found treatment to slow the progression. Alison did not. Sollod intensified her attention on her friend. She visited. She took her out, and drove her to appointments. She called and texted.
And when it was clear that Alison’s last-ditch chemotherapy was doing more harm than good, Sollod raised the prospect of hospice.
Alison studied Tibetan Buddhism, Sollod said, and was increasingly mindful of the concept of bardo: the liminal state between death and rebirth. Some believe the dying and their survivors can complicate the bardo journey if they grow too attached to the current life.
“I told her she didn’t have to worry about that at all,” Sollod said. “She was already enlightened.”
As if to underscore the notion, the two friends in late October attended a storytelling performance called “Mortified,” featuring tales from each speaker’s teenage journals and diaries. The show was entitled “Let’s Talk About Death.”
“The stories were a little X-rated,” Sollod said. “She had a really good time.”
Alison entered hospice a few weeks later, while Sollod was traveling. They never had another full conversation, but Sollod was there not long after her first visit — at Alison’s doorway just as a choir sang her friend away. The room fell quiet. She felt for Alison’s pulse. Took her hand. Told her she would see her on the other side.