Two Cancer Chicks
Katrin Sosnick: 46, married, 2 children
Best friend of 10 years: Meg Berté Owen, married, died ... lung infection brought on by treatments years before for Hodgkin's disease in 2000
“I truly believe that female friendship, if they are true and authentic, can be your most important resource -- more than your spouse, your kids, and your parents.”
How did you meet?
I was being treated at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I had just gotten married and I had a big career and suddenly this illness was disrupting everything. About halfway through chemo, my hair fell out and my body started to get weak. I was having some very bad moments psychologically. I would sit in the waiting room and everyone there was a lot older. A social worker gave me the names of three younger women. I called them right away. Meg, who was four or five years younger than me, called me right back.
What was the friendship like?
She had been a patient in the same department at Sloan Kettering four years before. She guided me through my treatments and we found we had a lot more in common than our disease. We both worked on Wall Street. During treatment, I wasn’t really in the space to go out or meet people. But when I was done, we went out and quickly became fast friends. Every Wednesday for 10 years we met for dinner at a Chinese restaurant called Chinchin. We always sat at the same table. We would talk and share everything. Those were like our holy dinners. We always sat at table 16 and we thought that would be the name for a book. It would be about our experiences with cancer, how the friendship helped us through. People were always asking us how we became friends and when we would tell our story and then, very often, they would tell us theirs. We wrote the introduction and the first few chapters and then she passed away. The manuscript has been under my desk for the last five years. Meg and I truly felt every woman should try in the span of her lifetime to have her own “table 16,” a time and place every week with their closest friend.
We were both socially conscious people. We got very involved with charity work. We were both on the survivor support of Memorial Sloan Kettering. We were also intellectually compatible. She got her undergrad at Harvard, her MBA at Harvard and I got my undergrad at London School of Economics and my MBA at Columbia. We were both very into academics and into our careers in an industry where there were very few women. We were also both one of four kids. We both grew up in a very conservative environment, religious to a certain extent, and we both rebelled against that and became very liberal. We also formed this organization called Cancer Chicks, seven of us who had all been through cancer or were going through cancer. We met every month.
Those were all the things that we had in common superficially and on paper, but there was more. We both had personalities that were very empathetic, but at the same time we were very firm people. Our friendship just grew because there was no judgment, there was no jealousy. It was just a very, very unlimited sense of love for each other, like your joy is my joy and my joy is your joy. It was so authentic, that’s the key word.
I was willing to tell her when something wasn’t right and she was willing to do the same for me. When I had my twins, although she couldn’t have kids, she was like my sister. She was there for me when I delivered them. She was there for me after and through every hardship and every joy. We were intimately in each other’s lives. She took to the grave secrets of mine that nobody will ever know.
Describe how the friendship ended.
Meg had Hodgkin’s disease. She had to have a bone marrow transplant and that caused her lungs to become very weak. She was cancer-free after her cancer treatments, but her lungs had been affected long term from the treatments.
In the summer of 2009 there was a swine flu crisis and she got what we think was the infection and then she got a secondary infection that affected her lungs. She was intubated for a month and her lungs deteriorated. That’s how she died – she died of an infection.
I have two memories I’d like to share about her death: The last time I actually spoke with her and then the day she died.
Meg went into Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for a regular check up on September 11, 2009. They were just going to do a routine checkup of her lungs, which she did every year, but she had been sick and she had been coughing, so they kept her. That was, I think, a Thursday. I texted her and she didn’t get back to me until Saturday morning. I got this text from her and it said, “Don’t be nervous, they kept me here, they are just doing some additional tests. I should be out soon.” I had a horrible feeling and I went to see her. We just talked and talked and then she said she wanted to have a big Halloween party when she got out of the hospital. We started to make a planning list for the party. She was very into lists and she was very organized. The last words she said were, “We have to dress up as Hogs and Hoes.” I said, okay whatever that means, those will be our costumes. I left the room and for some reason I walked back and I said, “Meg what do you mean Hogs and Hoes, you know I’ve never heard of that, explain that to me.” And then she laughed and said, “Oh Kat! Look it up.” I said, “Okay, I love you” and I left. That evening, she had a very bad lung attack and was intubated for four weeks. She did wake up one time and had the strength to go through her emails. So I do have an email that was my last form of communication with her, which said, “Hi Kitty Kat (she used to call me Kitty Kat), I’m doing my email for a bit and just wanted to tell you I love you.”
On Yom Kippur I decided that instead of sitting in a temple all day, I was going to go sit by her. That to me was the most religious and spiritual thing I could do. So I took my prayer book and drove uptown. I sat by her all day.
At 3:00 a.m. on October 15, 2009, her father-in-law called the house and said she had had a stroke. When I got to the hospital it was about 5:00 a.m. Her mother was sitting next to her and so we just sat there silently throughout the day. At 5:00 p.m. she passed away. It was important for me to be present, as horrible as it was to watch somebody die slowly like that. After she passed away I went in and I spent some time with her. We both had these necklaces that we made ourselves; they said “smile, survive, support.” I put hers on her. I think she was buried with it as well.
How did you cope with her loss?
The only way I managed my grief in the early phases and even up to today, was by remembering how lucky I was to have had her for 10 years. I believe that female friendships, if they are true and authentic, can be your most important resource — more than your spouse, your kids, and your parents. We would be so in the moment together, we would forget everything else around us, everything that might pull you down in life. There is nobody like her and I’ll never look for a replacement. Thankfully, I have other close friends and I am very close to her family. Her mother is like my second mom, her sister is like a sister to me, her best friend in Connecticut is like a best friend to me. I’ve gotten a whole new family even though I’m very close to my own family. I feel blessed that I have all these great people around me, but there are many days, and sometimes multiple times a day, when I wish I could pick up the phone and speak to her.
Of everything that I’ve got from her — her mother sent me so many of her heirlooms and clothes and her spinning shoes and all the gifts I had given her over the years — what I cherish most are her cell phones because they were symbolic of so many memorable conversations we had. I have all four of them. I put them in a Cartier pouch because to me they are worth more than any jewelry.
Meg is buried in Manchester, Connecticut where her family lives. Jewish people put pebbles on graves when they visit and so I send her Mom a pebble every year and she puts it on Meg’s grave. Every year it says something different about her. The first pebble I made for her had two words – “renegotiating reality” – because Meg always said when you’re faced with hardship and you feel like you’ve come to the end of your strength, you just have to say: “This is my new reality I’ve renegotiated, that’s what it is and I have to move on.” When faced with a crisis, Meg believed you had to look at life through new lenses and remain flexible. So renegotiating reality has become the identifier for us when we think of Meg.
Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?
I have a favorite Meg story. When Meg was planning her wedding, she found a place in Mexico, and so we took a trip to Playa del Carmen to see the place and meet the wedding planner. Our meeting was at the wedding venue, a few miles from our hotel near a different resort. We got all dressed up: heels, designer clothes, designer handbags. At reception at the resort they told us that you have to walk along the beach to the wedding site. There were hundreds and hundreds of people lying on the beach, enjoying the beautiful day. We kept walking the direction we were told and suddenly, within seconds, the clouds went completely grey. It went from a beautiful sunny day to completely black clouds. All the locals start running from the beach and suddenly it started to pour. It was a torrential downpour, almost biblical. Meg says, “Kat, we survived cancer, we can survive this.” We took our shoes off and went singing and running down the beach until we finally found the wedding planner and the venue. It was just a beautiful moment in time that is imprinted in my head because I felt that honestly anything is possible in life.
Before Friendship Dialogues was a gleam in founder Ellen Pearlman’s eyes, a group of over two dozen women answered her online plea for women who had lost a female best friend. Ellen is eternally grateful to all the women, including Katrin, for opening their hearts to her and sharing their personal stories of love and loss. It was through this process that the seeds for Friendship Dialogues were planted. Thank you!