Christie Buckner was an ordinary woman, so the world took little notice of her death on October 1, 2009.
Last night I came across a short, vague Times Picayune obit. Christie was 39 years old. “She conducted a courageous and tenacious fight for her life for many years. She is survived by her family and many friends.”
To be specific: She survived nine years, and her opponent was ovarian cancer.
I first became aware of her in late 2002. On an ovarian cancer message board, someone had posted Christie’s article from the New Orleans newspaper, Gambit Weekly: The Silent Killer.
This nickname for ovarian cancer made for a good — if ironic — headline. In Christie’s case, her cancer announced itself with persistent symptoms, but they were ignored by doctors.
From her story:
Everybody wants to tell me I can cure myself with nutrition or supplements. I don’t want to hear it. I have investigated everything. If there was a nutritional cure for cancer, my chemotherapy office would not be packed.
This Christie Buckner had quite a mouth on her. My kind of girl.
[Wigs are] expensive and they look like crap. You have three choices: Grandma, Country-Western Singer, or Streetwalker. Mine are from the Streetwalker collection.
I sent Christie a note, and she wrote back. I didn’t think of her again until a few months later, when I was in New Orleans attending an ovarian cancer conference.
The speakers at this conference seemed clinical and detached, even though they knew they were speaking not to colleagues or medical students, but to ovarian cancer survivors and their families. One speaker called my cell type an especially “bad actor.” Oh great.
I was just 18 months from my diagnosis, and that’s a fragile time for survivors. It’s not long enough to even fantasize you’ve beaten cancer, but it’s enough to feel the effects of freedom from treatment and a lightened heart. You’re afraid that any day your world will again come crashing down.
During the Q&A of one session, I heard a woman giving a speaker hell. Why is ovarian cancer research still in the dark ages? Why are we in the same place breast cancer was 40 years ago? Why isn’t there an early-warning screening test for ovarian cancer?
She was so full of righteous anger that I turned around to see who was talking. It was a petite blond I did not recognize until she said, “My email address is KickOvarianCancer at yahoo…”
Afterward, I went up to Christie Buckner, put my hand on my chest and said, “ThisWasPompeii,” my cryptic but memorable screen name at the time.
Christie had a car, and the two of us went tooling around New Orleans. She wanted to take me to her favorite restaurant, but she graciously deferred when the other conference women insisted on a tourist spot. (Later I learned that Christie’s employer, the Ritz-Carlton, had recruited her. I could see why. She took no prisoners when it came to ovarian cancer, but her personality was warm and her manners impeccable.)
Christie ultimately got the chance to show off her favorite Cajun restaurant when I came back to New Orleans just to visit her. “This is where the locals go,” she said, proud. She loved her hometown’s joie de vivre. “New Orleans truly is ‘the city that care forgot’,” she told me. The next day she showed me her Garden District “ancestral home,” a concept new to me.
After Hurricane Katrina, I tracked Christie down. She and her father had evacuated, but her father’s Bay St. Louis house got washed away. “Not a stick left,” she told me.
Except for a two-month window in 2001, when she hoped for a lasting remission but didn’t get it, Christie was always on chemo or preparing for more surgery. She sometimes traveled to Mississippi to get second or third opinions. Eventually she quit both the Ritz-Carlton and her moonlight job managing her apartment building. After that it got harder to find her.
The last time I talked to Christie, she wasn’t her same effervescent self. She’d just gotten out of the hospital. She’d had a colostomy. Her voice trembled as she told me she wondered if she’d made a mistake. “Maybe I should have refused the surgery,” she said. “Maybe I should have just let myself die.”
There it was, in two sentences, the terrible rock and hard place in which way too many cancer survivors find themselves.
As best I could, I tried to comfort her. I made her laugh. I sent her a book. I invited her to come visit me. I got her to sign up for Facebook.
Last night I did a search. In a year’s time, her Facebook profile had not changed. She’d never uploaded a picture, so she was just a white silhouette. I was her only friend.
Christie had survived nine years. That’s quite an accomplishment in the bleak world of advanced ovarian cancer.
She was an ordinary woman. An only child. A Mardi Gras girl with stacks and stacks of New Yorkers in her tiny bathroom. She had a boyfriend called Toy, a southern name. She had two cats and a red wig.
From her Gambit Weekly article:
There are so many misconceptions about cancer — people who think we get to drink tea and listen to soothing music all day. In addition to the endless doctors’ appointments, lab work and treatments, we still have to call Entergy and fight when our bill is messed up. We still have to care for sick relatives or children, go vote, everything. You still have to take the trash out. Nothing stops.
Here was a woman who counted voting as essential as calling the electric company and taking out the trash. Short obit or not, the world will miss a woman like that.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010; I wrote a follow-up post quoting from reader letters: Christie Buckner, They Oughta Name a Drink After You. – DT]