One Year Later

On Monday May 23, 2011 my day began as usual.  I started up the coffee maker and fired up the laptop.  Everything went wrong that day as soon as I saw an e-mail from my sister.  Its subject line was “CALL ME EMERGENCY” and had no further information.

My first thought was that something was wrong with my grandfather, who at the time was ninety-four, and that Rachel had been delegated to tell me the news.  My phone was off, and I immediately started searching for it.  Once I had it, I saw I had a text message from Rachel repeating “CALL ME EMERGENCY,” even though she knows I’m not a text-er.  I also had several missed calls and a voicemail from my mom.  Before calling Rachel, I listened to the voicemail, which said the problem was with Rachel.  One week before Rachel had a tongue biopsy and had since been in agony.  My heart sunk even further.  I suspected then.

Still, I wanted to get the information from Rachel herself so I called.  “I have cancer,” she said.

From there, the world quickly began to fall apart.  The “cancer journey” worsened at every turn, a chronicle I do not wish to outline on this blog.

Rachel Pauline Kahan passed away on April 27th, 2012.

A biblio blog at heart, I love to write about books and hope to continue doing so shortly.  However, this post is about someone I love, and how misinformation and ignorance killed her.  Until May 23, 2011 happened, no one who knew about Rachel’s tongue issue equated the cut on her tongue with possible cancer.  Not even her idiot dentist suspected, as he watched Rachel’s tongue situation progress for four months.

Misconceptions about oral cancer followed this terrible diagnosis.  Several well meaning people rushed to calm me, telling me how easily treatable this cancer is.  Some reacted in initial shock to the word cancer, only to tell me it didn’t really count if it was only on her tongue.  One person called to ask if Rachel was a smoker (no), which I of course roughly translate to, “please tell me a reason your sister deserves cancer so I can write this off and go about my life as usual, thanks.”  Some people who insisted that this was an “easy” or “not so bad” cancer deny ever having said that, and most have probably entirely forgotten these conversations.  The misinformation surrounding this disease is far more important than who said what when.  Other “facts” I heard include that oral cancer doesn’t metastasize around the body (WRONG!) and that it has a universally very high survival rate.

Sometime in the future, there will be a steep learning curve regarding this disease.  It may become more common knowledge that a non-healing cut or sore on the tongue could be cancer.  Perhaps people will begin to learn that oral cancer isn’t just an “old smoker’s” disease, but that a perfectly healthy twenty-five year old can have it too.  Someday, the medical profession may even begin to get a better handle on this disease, which they certainly don’t have now.  My big sister fell on the wrong side of all of these learning curves.

So now it is May 23, 2012, one year later.  Rachel has been dead for nearly one month, and I desperately miss her.  She suffered terribly, and nothing will ever make this okay.

I’m ending this post with transcripts of the eulogies I delivered and a picture of Rachel and me as I remember us, before the illness in August 2010.

May 2nd eulogy at formal funeral in Michigan:  RP

May 14th eulogy at less-formal life celebration in Washington, D.C.:  RP DC

Rachel Pauline Kahan:  July 13, 1985 – April 27, 2012.

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7 Responses to One Year Later

  1. Nancy Medbery says:

    Thank you Jessica, for this lovely picture and your thoughts (in several forms). So many of your
    book reviews discuss the adventures of young women, so I thought your tribute/awareness
    column fit right in. You and RP look oh so fabulous in the picture above. I know that your
    sister would want you to forge ahead and live an adventuresome life. Go on and grab life and
    live it with the backing of your loving, spot on sister. This is a heartfelt entry
    and it made me cry.

  2. Sheila Hooker says:

    Jessie, I heard your and your father’s eulogies, and I was so moved. The two of you painted such a perfect word picture of Rachel, that even those who had never met her, would be able to know her and appreciate her many gifts. Rachel had positively touched so many lives during her brief life, that her memory remains a bright light in a frequently dark world.

  3. Cal in California says:

    Wiping away the tears, Jess. Another in the long line of tributes to honor Rachel and her memory. More will follow, including each day you live life to the fullest.

  4. Bethio says:


    I am so sorry for your loss. Please please pass on my condolences to your family. I so wanted to make it up to Michigan to offer support (I currently live in Indiana), but there was no way I could make it in time. My thoughts are with you and your family.


  5. I miss my friend Rachel every single day. The world is a little less….everything now.

  6. Jane Kahan says:

    Thanks for crafting this post, Jess. You touched many, many people with this one.. As we go forward, it is our job to honor our Ray’s memory and you are doing just that, with this “awareness” post. Always, with love, Mommers

  7. Morgan says:

    Hi there. You don’t know me, but I was a friend of Rachel’s from MSU. We lived together in Case Hall and she was one of my favorite people. We had lost touch after college and I didn’t even know she was sick until I heard from the other girls that she had died. I hope that I am not intruding, but I was diagnosed last week with Squamous Cell Carcinoma after having a biopsy on my tongue. I have surgery in 3 weeks and will be treated at the UofM hospital. If you don’t mind, I’d love to know more about what happened with Rachel and what her journey was like. If you feel like sharing, my email is Thanks for your time.

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