The long chain of coincidences wrapping friends Norma Leisle and Kathleen Walker together reads like a novel— one filled with terror and trauma and love.
The first link between the women began in 2003 when Walker, 59, rented an apartment from Leisle, 74, in a move from the Bay Area to take a job in the wind power industry. “I met Norma on the phone three months before when she was going to become my landlady,” Walker explained. “We just kept talking on the phone and became friends.”
That apartment, Walker noted, is under the office of Blue Mountain Memorial Gardens, where Leisle worked at the time. “So that’s where I live. I live in the cemetery.”
And there goes another burst of shared laughter, the medicine the women have used to cure all manner of sadness and frustration for a decade.
To underscore triumph, as well, such as when Leisle finally found and married the love of her life in 2007. Jerry Leisle, “the husband she should have had all along,” is the perfect man for the pair of friends, Walker said with a grin. “He’s my husband, too. He got both of us.”
Jerry fell right into the established pattern that includes dinner and wine every Friday night, occasionally becoming Walker’s designated driver when needed.
For the bride to get a diagnosis of ovarian cancer three months later seemed like a slap in the face of happiness, especially after enduring breast cancer in 1995, Leisle said. “And I beat the breast cancer. I expected that to be that.”
The new wave of disease sent her friend into the operating room almost immediately, Walker said. “When you get your diagnosis, you’re just pulled out of your life. It’s like getting hit by a Mack truck, every single thing changes again.”
She knows — Walker discovered she had ovarian cancer last April.
It was terrible news and her friend had the perfect reaction. “It was the ‘F’ word like 14,000 times. With some other bad words thrown in,” Walker said, sending a fond smile Leisle’s way.
In a region that stretches from Sunnyside to Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and down to La Grande, holding a population of 450,000, ovarian cancer comes in 17th down a list of 36 primary cancers, said Kay Hicks, executive director of Blue Mountain Oncology Program. “It’s not a common cancer around here.”
When the disease makes itself known, it is usually at a later stage, Hicks added. “You just don’t detect it until it is farther along.”
The cancer strikes the young and the old, and the treatment is necessarily aggressive. That includes “debulking,” the removal of “every single (organ) you can live without,” Walker said.
That coincidence would be enough for any pair of buddies, but Leisle and Walker weren’t done yet. Since Walker’s ovarian cancer ordeal, she has undergone treatment for breast cancer. On this day she is sitting at Leisle’s dining table fresh from a double mastectomy procedure just 10 days before.
“I did both breasts,” Walker said emphatically. “Ovarian cancer might kill me, but breast cancer won’t.”
Another coin flip brought Leisle back into the fight when her ovarian cancer kicked out of remission in December. “Ovarian cancer is not like breast cancer,” she said. “Your chances are that in 18 to 24 months there’s a recurrence. I had gone almost five years.”
The women eschew cancer support groups, they said, citing the anxiety that comes from hearing the war stories of others. “We’re each other’s support group,” Leisle said.
The two offer a different sort of perspective, dispensing a saying whenever the other one is having a pity party, she explained. “‘Soldier the (heck) up.’”
Because you might not be able to choose how you die, “but we sure as hell get to choose how we live,” Leisle added.
There have been non-cancer nightmares to endure on behalf of each other, including a difficult divorce, a suicide to survive and the death of a beloved brother.
“And if it was a bad year for her it was a bad year for me,” Walker said.
She thought the worst was to come when she helped Leisle pack up to move out of state in 2006. It meant saying goodbye to the woman who had become, by any measure, a sister. “It was really, really hard. And when she came back to visit at Christmas and she and Jerry were at my house and I’d had a little too much to drink, I said ‘Jerry needs to get his ass in gear and propose to Norma and bring her back.’ And that night he did.”
Reunited geographically, nothing has stopped them since. Not even awkward situations that come from dealing with medical conditions. “Like walkers. I was never going to need a walker,” said Walker. “We went to Macy’s yesterday and there we were, we both had walkers. And you can shop for a long time if you have a walker with the seat.”
She and Leisle also co-shop from catalogs frequently, which often means wearing strikingly similar — if not identical — wardrobes. “I’ve got that outfit,” Walker said, pointing to Leisle’s dress. “And she’s got this sweater. And she bought the same coat I did. We’ve taken this twin thing a little too far.”
It comes with the territory, however, she added. “We were friends before cancer, when it was just drinking wine and talking about bad husbands … so for two best friends to have ovarian and breast cancer,” Walker said, a smile tugging at her lips before she could finish the sentence, “and to have our coats be exactly the same — it’s just really rare.”