You Never Know…

You Never Know…

By Nicolle Foland

I met Jason a few weeks ago on Twitter and thanked him (like good Twitter users should :)) for his ‘follow.’ A few direct messages after I told him I was moved by his blog and the good he’s putting out into the world, he invited me to write a post, and I’m extremely honored to do so.  You never know who you’re going to meet in this world, be it on the street or on Twitter, and I’m happy to have met Jason all the way from San Francisco to Georgia. 

I came to be a ‘tweeter’ because my best friend, Zheng Cao, was diagnosed with stage IV Lung Cancer in April 2009 at the age of 42 – a huge non sequitur for sure! She and I started our opera careers together, she from Shanghai, China, myself from Des Moines, Iowa, when we met at the San Francisco Opera’s summer young artist program in 1994. We became fast friends and were thrilled when we found out we were both invited to be part of the SFO’s year-round young artist program from 1995-97. We both moved to San Francisco, and our fates were sealed as best friends, another beautiful example of never knowing whom you’re going to meet!

Zheng and I went through many things together over the years – the death of her fiance in 2001, the ups and downs of our careers and the other inevitable storms of one’s late twenties. Nothing, though, could have prepared us for the shocking news she received in April 2009 that she had stage IV Lung Cancer. Yes, I know…you’ve probably already wondered to yourself: Did she smoke? Was she exposed to second-hand smoke or other toxins? The answer is no. The answer is anyone can get lung cancer. I won’t hurl around the statistics, but what I will say is that the stigma surrounding lung cancer and the almost-never hidden biases that lung cancer patients deserve to have their disease has held back funding for research into new treatments since it’s been known that smoking causes this insidious disease. 

As Zheng’s caregiver along with her family for the first year and a half of her diagnosis, I learned an enormous amount about what it means to have a deadly disease and all that it entails. I’d never before been touched directly by anyone who had cancer, so this was a whole new world for me to observe and be a part of. Zheng has taught me so much over the past two years, including how to take one day, and many times, one moment at a time.  She did well for 14 months on a drug that targeted the genetic mutation which caused her lung cancer. Since she became resistant to that drug, it has been a series of setbacks, more treatment plans, clinical trials (which I’ll be forever grateful for) and the side effects that come with each one of those things and which affect daily quality of life more than the cancer itself ever could. She is stable for the moment, and I’m grateful for every moment I have with her.

In spring 2010, I had a two-month opera gig on the East Coast, which was the first time I’d been away from her for that long. The Haiti earthquake happened while I was away, and after seeing the wonderful programs the good NGO’s were doing there, I realized it was time for me to do something different with my life. I had honed many skills managing my self-employed opera career, and it was time to help others with those skills. I decided that nonprofit work was where I wanted to focus my efforts, and what better place to start than with the foundation which had helped Zheng during her diagnosis, the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation?

In April 2010 I began volunteering for BJALCF and a few months later, they offered me a full-time position at the foundation. No one was more surprised than I that I would be giving up my self-employed life to have a nine-to-five job, which I’d never had in my entire life. It is the best thing, since I began my career as a singer, to happen to me. I have a new purpose, new meaning in my life and the opportunity to learn things I never imagined I’d be learning – like tweeting for BJALCF! 

Since Zheng’s marriage to one of her physicians last December, my role as caregiver has changed, of course, and it’s all been good. What I’d like to end with is that I would never have wished to have the gift of being a caregiver, the gift of a new career, the gift of meeting others I wouldn’t have otherwise because of Zheng’s diagnosis of lung cancer – and yet here I am.  So I now work to leave expectations aside and ride the flow of life that has always unfolded for me, whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not. I have faith that all I need to do is have faith and, in that process, find peace in the middle of storms – whatever they may be. You never, ever know…

Make sure you check out this story the local ABC News station did about Zheng.

About Nicolle Foland

Nicolle Foland has been the Director of Community Relations for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation since November 2010. From 1993 – 2010 she was an opera singer performing throughout the United States. Nicolle grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and attended the University of Northern Iowa, where she received her undergraduate and Master’s degrees in vocal performance. She lives with her husband, a stagehand turned high school special education teacher, in San Francisco, Ca. She still feels lucky to live in the City by the Bay every day (despite the fog) and is amazed at its beauty even after 15 years.


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