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Being Present for Kirsten

by Jordann PhillipsSupportive Loved OneFebruary 7, 2021View more posts from Jordann Phillips

My dear friend Kirsten was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia following our sophomore year of college. While others were going about their lives studying, attending sporting events and parties, Kirsten was entering the fight of her life: for her life. I began talking to Kirsten more frequently and saw a strength in her that I had never seen in anyone before. Her life had suddenly given her a mountain, where my struggles were now only molehills.

Suddenly, there was a large elephant in the room and no one knew how to approach it, so they maneuvered around it the best they could. Kirsten watched along, awkwardly appreciative of their efforts, knowing they were well-intentioned. Everyone ran to her side but didn’t know what to do or say. I was one of those people. I tried to be present but didn’t understand at all what this meant or would entail. Slowly, presence began to wean as her journey continued on.

As chemo was killing Kirsten’s cancer, it also took a toll on her body. Kir liked to brag about how she could eat Cold Stone ice cream and carne asada burritos all day without gaining an ounce; she joked her chemo-induced bulimia was a blessing in that regard. She would also joke about being a vampire on account of her pale complexion and bloodshot eyes. Her jokes could be crude, even cringe-worthy, but always witty and timely. She brought a positive, sarcastic energy everyone needed when things were tough and scary; quite frequently, I found myself crying and laughing in quick succession in her presence.

Not everything we talked about was light, though; I usually waited for Kir to initiate heavy conversations and then I’d hold on for dear life. I’d marvel at how strong she was and how brave she could be without trying. When I would leave her, I often carried a guilt that I was going back to my life and she was left there dealing with hers; it seemed unfair.

Entering her final round of chemo, Kirsten had one wish: to finish treatment in an outpatient setting. This was granted in December 2015. Kir was now able to spend time more with friends and family. When midnight struck on New Year’s Eve, they went out to the balcony to scream “Happy New Year!” and good riddance to 2015.

After her last treatment in January, Kirsten rang the bell to signify her hell was finally over, while friends and family popped champagne. Kir’s body was fragile and her immune system compromised, but doctors allowed her to finish out healing at home. Being home was a much-needed relief; it signified her journey was coming to an end.

This joy was short lived, though; in early February, Kirsten was readmitted into the hospital. Worry set in but Kir remained in high spirits throughout the new testing; she spent most of her time planning out the next several months. We would get tickets to EDC in June, her favorite music festival in Las Vegas, and for an upcoming Justin Bieber concert. She was in the process of transferring to my university for the fall and decided to change her major to pursue a career in nursing. She had a dream to give back to other young adult cancer patients like herself.

Less than a week later, Tuesday, February 9th, 2016 is a day I look back on with deep regret. I try to live life with no regrets, but that particular Tuesday pains me to this very day. It is a day I chose to prioritize busy-ness over being present with Kirsten. The artist of one of our favorite songs, “Fight Song” was singing at the hospital. We had talked about the performance for weeks and were really looking forward to watching it together. Unfortunately, my midterms took precedence; I decided I was too busy studying for the next day’s exams to go.

I sent a lengthy text apology to Kirsten, noting I’d skip school on Friday and hang out with her all-day Saturday to make up for the time missed. Kirsten being Kirsten, responded lovingly to my excuses and let me off easy. I now know being busy is never an excuse to not be present.

The next couple of days went by in a blur as I crammed and powered through exams. During this time, I didn’t check in with Kirsten and neglected to check my email where status updates from her mom, Abby, were flooding in.

Friday morning, post-midterms, I began packing an overnight bag for the hospital. I checked my phone to make sure we were still on and noticed Kirsten hadn’t responded. I contemplated just showing up at the hospital but wanted to make sure she was still there. Since her pain was subsiding earlier in the week, I figured there was a good chance the doctors had sent her home.

I logged into my email, expecting to see no news or – better yet – an update that Kir was home. As emails loaded, updates filled my screen, and awful terms started to pop out at me: “Increased pain,”, “Emergency surgeries,”, “Internal wounds,” … ‘WHAT!!!?’, I gasped. I sat there unable to move, helpless. I was numb. Everything I had done all week that seemed so important – I couldn’t now recall. It was like it never happened. I couldn’t believe this. Abby continued providing updates; I sat and waited. I texted Kirsten a long text of support and encouragement, but I don’t think she ever got to read it.

The next day being Valentine’s Day, I went to bed hoping I’d go visit in the morning with a funny card about how men were overrated, and chocolate was all we needed to get through such a stupid holiday. Instead, I woke to a heartbreaking email. Kirsten’s condition over the past 24 hours had worsened. I could hardly bring myself to read the end of the email update. I slammed down my laptop in anger, fear and confusion. I curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor and helplessly sobbed.

The next day, February 15th, 2016, was the day our beloved Kirsten passed away. She was 20 years old.

I still struggle with forgiving myself for not being present with Kirsten the Tuesday before she passed. That’s the tricky thing about presence: it’s often most needed when we least expect and prioritize it. I wasn’t able to say goodbye to Kirsten, as her health deteriorated too quickly for such luxuries. While I have found grace for myself in understanding it’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day of life, I will always regret not being present for and with Kirsten during her last week of life. I can’t remember my grades on the midterms or even what classes my exams were in, but I do remember that I didn’t get to see Kirsten one last time; I really needed that, and I didn’t get it. I miss my friend.

Kirsten was brutally authentic, passionate, selfless, and intentional. She overflowed with confidence, honesty, humor, optimism, courage, and resilience; she was spontaneous and always found a way to appreciate the little moments in life. Kir made it her mission to be fully present in each moment; maintaining relationships was her top priority, and she was inclusive and responsive, always there for whoever needed her. Kirsten was a better friend to me than I was to her and I thank her for that. She showed me I could be so much more than I am.

When I think of Kirsten, “Fight Song” appropriately plays in my head. Kirsten was the strongest fighter I have had the pleasure of knowing. I draw from memories of her strength for inspiration when I feel discouraged. Kir didn’t let her diagnosis define her as a person or hold her back. Even when cancer was winning, she stayed hopeful and optimistic. She didn’t let cancer break her; she fought back. She fully embraced the painful treatment as a journey and soaked up as many lessons from her experience as she could. Her strength was present, even when she was scared. I learned so much from Kirsten, and the biggest lesson of all was the importance of being present: in every moment, of every day, for as long as I’m breathing on this planet.

In honor of living like Kirsten, which was to make good out of any situation, we established b-present to ensure every young adult diagnosed with cancer feels connected and supported throughout treatment and beyond. Thank you for listening to my story and being here to share yours.

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All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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