I still remember meeting her; it was 1988 and I had just started the Spring semester at the University of Rochester. Somehow, I found myself at a party on the quad; while moving from room to room (and feeling quite like I didn’t fit in), an energetic, smiling, and fairly loud woman came up to me and introduced herself.
“Hey! I’m Kristina! What’s your name?” she said. And with that, a friendship started; one that would last nearly twenty-five years.
It’s amazing to look back on it now and see how time flew. A summer spent with a group of us on Harvard Street in Rochester, graduation, professional careers started. I moved to Connecticut, fell in love, moved to New York, and found my way to Boston. She moved to Chicago, found the love of her life, and settled in London. We both had children and we dreamed of doing family vacations together. Someday, we thought.
Then she got breast cancer. Last year, she called and told me it had spread to her brain. She was terrified; I was too, though I hoped she would be one of the “lucky” ones. She received the best treatments, and despite some scary moments, she thrived. As 2013 came, I made plans to see her. She had told me of a family trip to the Caribbean in February; so along with another friend, we planned a trip later that month.
About a week before my visit, she texted. “Can you chat for a moment?” she wrote.
“Sure, I would make time for you any minute of any hour.” I wrote back. Turns out that quite suddenly she developed abdominal distention and constipation; there was no relief with laxatives. She had gone from “bikini-ready” to “six months pregnant” in a matter of days.
“Kris, it sounds like ascites,” I wrote back. Get it checked out; if it is, a paracentesis should provide some relief.”
“Thanks,” she wrote.
Within 48 hours, she was hospitalized for an expedited work-up and for immediate management. A CT scan showed near replacement of her liver with cancer and omental disease. She had a drain placed, and liters upon liters of fluid were removed.
I feared for the worst, started to wonder if my dear friend was going to make it.
I arrived on a cold day in London and made my way to the hospital. She was weaker, dehydrated, and speech was difficult. She had told me how she accepted that she would die; that she felt she had led an interesting life; happy with the choices she made, in love with the man she married. She broke down, though, when she talked of her kids; how much she loved them and how her heart ached knowing she would no longer be there to see them grow. Mostly, she cried because cancer had affected her family and she was powerless to stop it.
On the day before I left, I sat with Kris and her husband. He had asked her if she wanted to come home. At first, she stated she did not. “I am too weak, and would like to get better before coming home. The boys need so much, and I just cannot give them the attention they want. Not like this.”
The three of us exchanged looks, I think because we all realized the elephant was in the room and were not sure how to talk about it.
Finally, I asked her how she felt things were going . . .
“I think I’m doing poorly . . . and I think it’s only going to get worse,” she said.
“I think you are right,” I said, looking directly at her. With tears in my eyes, I said, “I’ve never hidden my opinion from you, and I hope you know, I’ve never lied to you. I think you’re dying, Kris. I don’t know how much time you have, but I’m scared it’s not going to be long. If you want to go home, I think you two should talk about it and do it sooner than later.”
She looked away and up to the ceiling. “Oh my god. . . I’m dying.”
The next day, she made the decision to return home, that she would not be resuscitated in a terminal event, and arrangements were being made to ensure her comfort. I said my goodbyes to her and her family, both of us realizing we would not see each other again. No tears were shed; instead, we remembered our days as undergraduates, moments (some sordid) that would live on in my memory (and, unfortunately, in pictures).
I returned home, hoping her last weeks would be good ones; but even I was too optimistic. Her liver disease was accelerating and liver failure imminent. Kris died peacefully within days of her return home, surrounded by her family. I heard from her husband that it was the most peaceful death the hospice team had borne witness to.
For me, I know I should take solace in knowing I was able to say my goodbyes to my dear friend. But, part of me feels the anguish that as an oncologist, here was yet another life cut short due to cancer; another family robbed of their mother and wife.
Kristina was a wonderful human being who opened her heart without prejudice or pretense. Her kindness knew no bounds, and her love for her children and her husband was endless. She handled her breast cancer with dignity and grace, even when she felt at her worst. She taught me how to be a better friend, husband, father, and oncologist. In some small way, I hope I was able to provide her with the closure that all of us deserve before we die.
I posted the death of my dear friend on twitter and in reply, Dr. Julie Gralow (@jrgralow) tweeted: “Really need to accelerate pace of breast cancer research.” In memory of my dear friend, Kristina Stanfield, truer words never were tweeted.
Kristina Stanfield (center), April 17, 1969-March 22, 2013
My appreciation to Kristina’s family for allowing me to post this blog.
Oct, 18 2013 5:50 PM
Don, Thank you for this memoriam to Kristina.
Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP
Oct, 18 2013 5:58 PM
Though it has been a long time, some of my fondest memories of the University were in your class, with Kristina. Thank you so much for posting; it's bringing back so many memories, and smiles. DSD
Mar, 14 2014 1:53 PM
Don, I don't know how you do it. You're such a stronghold in so many people's lives. You care so much for so many. I read your articles, and am consistently overwhelmed by the amount of time and emotion you give to each and every person you write about. I'm so very proud of you. ~Marie
Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP
Mar, 19 2014 12:31 PM
Those are beautiful words coming from my little sis! xoxo. D
Sep, 23 2015 4:22 PM
As a friend long ago from UR days, I am in shock having discovered the loss of Kristina. You said it so beautifully that her kindness knew no bounds, and she was a wonderful, bright ray of sunshine just to be around. I am so sad to hear this news, but can smile when I think of our great UR memories. Thank you for sharing your story- Mark Strubel email@example.com