At age 15, I walked into the local chicken restaurant looking for my first job. There to greet me was this beautiful smile; a tall, slender, gorgeous 18-year-old. The manager was my soon-to-be boss, soon-to-be best friend, soon-to-be wife of my older brother, soon-to-be mother of my nieces, soon-to-be aunt of my children and did I mention, soon-to-be the best friend a girl could ever ask for?
I had the privilege of knowing my sweet Joann for over 30 years. We were inseparable in our twenties and as time went on, we became more like sisters than best friends. I’ve tried to write this a hundred times, but can’t come up with the right and perfect words to describe the most selfless person I have ever had the privilege to know. She made me better in so many ways as well as all the lives of those she touched. She was involved in our community and served on boards for different organizations in town. She was as genuine as the day is long and so deeply missed. Our phone calls would last for hours even though we both lived in the same small town. We always ended every call with, “love you.” Oh how my heart aches to be with my friend again. Joann was different and this tragic loss has affected so many people – mainly her devoted husband and her two beautiful daughters.
I remember when she told me of her fear that something was wrong. It was Thanksgiving 2005 and we were doing dishes together. We chatted about everything and nothing at all and were thoroughly wrapped up in the moment of our togetherness. Suddenly she whispered, “I’m having a problem.” I giggled and said me too and that I ate too much. She said, no, that this was serious. I stopped and asked what was wrong. She told me she had blood in her stool. I asked the obvious questions like hemorrhoids and have you been sick. She said no, that there was not a little blood, but a lot. I didn’t know what to make of what she was saying to me. None of it made sense. Surely it couldn’t be anything serious. I could tell she was concerned, but quickly said everything will be fine, don’t worry. She had a doctor’s appointment the next week and would let me know as soon as she knew anything. A couple of weeks went by and her fears were confirmed – she had colon cancer and they would need to operate. Our entire family was dumbfounded and shocked. This couldn’t be. It can’t be that serious. No one in our family gets sick like this. Going into surgery, she joked around. She was so strong and never let any of us think for a second that she was scared or worried or fearful of this dreaded, evil disease. They removed eight inches of her colon. The doctors told her definitively that they got it all, that she wouldn’t need chemo or radiation. They said she was fine. December of 2008 it was back.
On came the treatments of chemo and radiation. On came the fear that this is real, it’s not something we could ignore anymore. Our sweet Joann was sick and this time it was serious. It had spread to lymph nodes and attached itself to her sacrum. Her prognosis was bleak, less than 50% chance of survival. My brother and his beautiful wife and daughters had just moved into their beautiful new home after months and months of building this dream home. Unpacked boxes were everywhere and looming over all of this was this horrid news. Joann has cancer again and it is stage IV. At a time where joy should have been felt throughout this big beautiful home, time stood still, broken hearts and fear was all anyone felt. Not Joann, she almost immediately said she was going to be fine, she was going to fight this and told me to stop being sad, don’t cry. “I’m going to make it!”
Joann lived another two and a half years and she went through some of the most brutal treatments ever. The different concoctions of chemo made her violently ill – at first. Then they stopped working. This evil disease worked its way to her liver and lungs. However, this monster that lived inside Joann never ever made Joann weak or give up. You see, Joann was never, ever about this disease but rather about getting on with life and living life to its fullest. She searched for doctors and went far and wide to get treatment and advice. She went to UCLA, to Oregon Health Sciences, to the Mayo Clinic, to University of San Francisco and to Cancer Treatment Centers in Arizona. She wanted more than anything to see her beautiful daughters get married and looked forward to being a grandma. She got to see one daughter graduate from high school, but was so sad that she might not see her youngest graduate – determined she would beat this. Joann rarely missed work even through her treatments and doctor’s appointments. She was all about life. She made plans with her loving husband for their retirement; how they would go visit their daughters when they were in college, visit them when they moved away, hold their precious grandbabies. She was determined to live.
2011 came and it was brutally apparent that things weren’t looking good. We were so fearful. We prayed for a miracle, for treatments to work, for a doctor to fix this problem, for a savior. By June of 2011, Joann’s pain was nearly unbearable, but it didn’t stop her. Although she needed someone to drive her to work, she still made it nearly every day. She lived on pain meds and would come home and crash every evening. My brother sat by her side every night. Listening to her plans for their future, taking care of her needs – hot pads, cold packs, pain meds, back rubs, more blankets, fewer blankets. He was her savior during those days and nights when she needed him the most.
On July 15, 2011, we made plans to have a girl’s weekend. I came over and we had a slumber party. We lay in her big bed and talked till the early morning hours both Friday and Saturday night. She was so faithful and believed with all her heart that God had plans for her. We prayed for God to find a cure, for God to help the doctors find a medicine, a treatment that would make Joann better. We meditated, we laughed, but we never cried. The pain ravaged her body and she needed pain meds nearly every hour. I remember one evening that weekend at around 2:00 a.m.; she rolled over towards me in utter pain and said, “I need you to believe that I am going to make it, because I am. I am going to make it Lori. Please believe me and please don’t be sad.”
On July 20th the worst thing possible happened. Joann got up to use the bathroom and filled the toilet with blood. The blood couldn’t be stopped no matter what they tried to do. She was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. I met my brother and his daughters at the hospital. She was in the utter agony. The pain was horrific. Every time blood came out of her, she screamed blood curdling screams and asked God to stop the pain. Nurses were horrified and cried as they tried to help her. Doctors stood in disbelief and shed tears. How can we help this poor woman? She was going to not only bleed to death, but die in the worst pain anyone could imagine. The tumor was sitting right on a major blood vessel and there was no way they could stop the hemorrhaging. After putting her on several different types of pain meds and starting a blood transfusion the screaming had stopped. My brother and I stood on each side of her bed and we held her hands. She looked up at me and I saw her first tear. The first time I had ever seen my sweet friend shed a tear in her courageous battle. She looked at me and said, “Well maybe Heaven won’t be so bad.” My brave friend couldn’t fight any longer. On July 23rd, a day after her husband’s birthday, she passed away.
My brother has started a foundation in her honor. The Joann Burns Memorial Foundation was set up to provide scholarships for students going into college or already attending college, majoring in a field that will have significance for cancer patients and have a family member that has been diagnosed with cancer. My brother serves on the board of our local hospital as well. My daughter puts together “Joann Cares” baskets for cancer patients going through treatment for colon cancer. Our family puts on the Firecracker Mile on July 4th each year in honor of Joann and patients who are fighting colon cancer. We also hold a walk-a-thon, raising funds for our local cancer center and raising awareness for early diagnosis and screenings for colon cancer. My nieces will do a Cops vs. Firemen basketball game this Spring, to raise funds and awareness for colon cancer. Together, our family will never stop advocating for better treatments and the possibility of a cure.
Joann’s motto in life was always – NEVER, EVER GIVE UP. It’s how she lived every second of her life. She was a fighter, determined to live life to its fullest. To us, she was all about getting your rear in gear. To me, getting your rear in gear is all about Joann. Take charge of your life and live every second to its fullest potential.
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