I will write a health update blog soon, but today I want to honour my special friend, Danna. Today marks 1 month since Danna died, I have been drafting this blog post for quite some time, and wanted to make sure I got it out today.
I am not sure if you saw or remember my blog from a few years ago about my holiday in Helsinki (My Visit to Helsinki and Why Finland is Great (maddiescancertales.com)). In September 2019 I spent just over a week in Helsinki visiting Danna – a girl I’d met online through our shared experiences of sarcoma. We took a leap of faith, Danna invited me into her home, I booked the tickets, and somehow we trusted each other so much that we even shared a bed during my stay! A testament to Danna’s character. We clicked instantly, and made friends for life.
Danna has been a constant source of comfort, unrivalled energy, empathy, fun and joy since I reached out to her in 2018. Sarcoma is a rare cancer, and being a 20-something female with sarcoma, we are pretty far and few between. But it didn’t take us long to realise that sarcoma wasn’t all we had in common. We had the same earrings, we listened to the same music, we liked the same films, we had a shared sense of humour, were both passionate about nutrition and exercise, and Danna was an established musician – also a treasured passion of mine.
Danna was a ‘best friend’ to so many. I sometimes wondered how someone could have so many best friends and still give them all as much time and energy as they desired – but Danna managed it. She made everyone she met feel so welcome, special, loved and wanted in her life. Looking back through our messages, she always told me how much she loved me. Even though in her last months she struggled to keep up with her messages, she always always replied. She checked in with me, she empathized with me and made me feel like my problems weren’t too small. She validated me and wanted to listen. How many people can you say that about?
Danna wanted so badly to live. Before cancer, she lived for the big life achievements – running marathons, moving halfway across the world, travelling and playing music in prestigious venues. The last months of her life, while I knew her, she also lived for the small things, the things that, when it comes down to it, life is all about – moments with her family, shopping, doing her makeup and putting on an outfit that made her feel good, taking pictures and posting them, eating jelly beans. That is not to say that even when her body was saying ‘no’, Danna did not achieve incredible things in her last months. She certainly did. She was an advocate for medical aid in dying in her State, Minnesota, even filming mini documentaries and partaking in interviews to raise awareness (Danna Nelson (compassionandchoices.org)). She filmed a documentary for Brut America: Documentary: Meet Danna: 26, fun and dying | Brut. She saw her favourite band live in concert last year, and got to meet them in person! All of this while planning her own funeral and helping her family prepare for her own death.
Danna showed us that even when dying, you can live and have fun. She withstood the most harsh medical regimes just to experience more life. In one of our last conversations, I asked her how she finds the motivation to keep going back for treatment, even though it makes her suffer. She told me that she had been so close to death so many times, she would rather have a little more medicine that makes her suffer, than die. The closer she got to death, she said, the more she was willing to give up in terms of quality of life. She wanted to suck every minute out of life that she could get. It makes me so sad that she has died, but I know she was grateful for every bit of it – much moreso in her short 26 years than most people get out of a lifetime.
Danna was well aware of her outlook. She knew she was dying. She wanted everyone around her to know too, because why should she have to sit with her own suffering while those around her held onto hope she might survive? Long-term survival was never an option. Her only option was to keep going, if she could, and soak up every inch of happiness while she could.
She was just 26. It’s impossible to make sense of. She did so much with her 26 years – but I know there was so much she wanted to do, and missed out on. She should still be here. She should have a future to look forward to. As much as I will be eternally grateful to have known Danna, I wish I didn’t have to meet her. I wish neither of us had cancer and we could just live like any other 20-something women, dream of our futures, and not have to worry about all the life we’d be missing.
My thoughts have been going out to Danna's immediate family and her best and closest friends these last few weeks. Such a bright light has gone out and she will be forever missed. I don't like using clichés, but Danna really was the sunniest ray of sunshine I think I'll ever meet. Being able to observe her memorial last month was such a privilege (thank you to her friends who organised it so that her friends around the world could tune in), to hear how everyone's experience of Danna was pretty much the same. She changed the lives of those who were fortunate enough to interact with her.
I miss you, Danna.
Thanks for reading.
Danna Nelson Obituary - Coon Rapids, MN (dignitymemorial.com)
Danna Nelson (compassionandchoices.org).