breast cancer and finding hope in unexpected places: part I

A diagnosis of breast cancer can be terrifying, disrupting life, plans, even your sense of hope for your future. In honor of those who have been impacted by this disease, we’d like to offer a story of one woman’s journey from diagnosis through treatment and on to health and hope.

Joanne was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. That diagnosis, and the journey it took her on, required all her strength, focus, and resources. But one thing she really needed was surprisingly hard to find: reasons for hope.

“When I was diagnosed, I was lucky — I had friends, family, good medical care, and good information. But the one thing I couldn’t find was hope. I scoured the Internet for stories like mine, but it was all so negative. I wanted stories of people who had overcome this and moved on, but you don’t hear those, you hear the worst-case scenarios.

“I’ll never forget the day I walked out of the hospital after I was done with radiation. That was the final day of a journey that started with the diagnosis, the lumpectomy, the chemo, and finished with radiation. I felt like literally the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I was done. I just wanted to run forward and live for the future, for what’s out there. There is hope, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic, even with this diagnosis.”

So, if you can’t find a story of hope, become one. Here’s how Joanne did it.

When “life as normal” suddenly isn’t

In early 2005, Joanne was living in Chicago and had just finished her MBA. After two challenging years of full-time work and full-time school, she was ready to enjoy a bit of a break. In August, she got a dog (Molly) for her birthday; in September, she went in for a routine mammogram — all just life as normal.

Except the 45-minute appointment turned into four hours when doctors “found something.” Ultrasounds revealed a small tumor in her left breast, and the decision was made to remove the lump as quickly as possible. In October, Joanne underwent a lumpectomy.

“They removed the tumor, and then they wanted to do both chemo and radiation. I wasn’t gung-ho on doing chemo. Radiation is very specific, very focused on a certain area. Chemo goes through your whole body, it kills everything, both the bad and the good cells, to make sure cancer isn’t lingering somewhere else in your body.”

For a relatively small tumor, this was a pretty aggressive form of treatment. But because Joanne was only in her early 40s and pre-menopausal, her doctors wanted to ensure she’d have the 40 or 50 more years she still had coming to her.

The chemo lasted for two months, with treatments every other week. “After the second treatment, that’s when you lose your hair,” Joanne says. “The irony is, the main reason I didn’t want to do chemo is I didn’t want to lose my hair. I went and got a second opinion, I had additional testing, just because I didn’t want to lose my hair. After I had my surgery in October, they wanted to start the chemo right away, but I postponed because I wanted hair for the holidays. It seems so stupid now, but it was really important then.”

Finding hope step 1: Taking control of the process

“One of the things I learned was, I had to do this — all of this — at my pace. People are pushing you, constantly, from all different directions, but I felt very strongly that I needed to do this my way to feel comfortable with the choices I made.”

Making decisions for herself, even if those decisions were limited to when she lost her hair rather than if, was a source of strength.

“I decided to start chemo in January. I was living in Chicago at the time, but I came home to Seattle in December, and my very dear friends gave me a great gift: as only two gay men can do, they took me wig shopping. We went for a spa day and then to find wigs. In the gay transvestite community, it’s all about celebrating the feminine in the best way, and we had the most fun shopping for wigs. I ended up with two: one we dubbed my ‘Nicole Kidman’ look, and the other was my ‘Meg Ryan’ look.”

While truly fabulous, Meg and Nicole weren’t suitable for work, so Joanne bought a more expensive wig and got it styled by a woman who specialized in adapting wigs for chemo patients. In the meantime, she got her hair cut short so when it did start to fall out, it would be less traumatic.

“I did all of this to be ready, as ready as I could be when you don’t know what’s coming. Everything I read said you have to be proactive, don’t let things happen to you, don’t be a victim. And one of the things you can do is, before you start losing your hair, go get your head shaved.”

Once her hair did start coming out, Joanne decided to take the step. A friend volunteered to go with her, and when they arrived at the salon, they were each given a glass of champagne. The stylist turned Joanne away from the mirror, and her friend kept up a constant stream of gossip from the many celebrity magazines dotted around the place. With all these distractions, Joanne really didn’t pay attention to what was happening.

“When the hair stylist was done, she turned me around to face the mirror. And I was like, huh. That’s not all that bad. I wasn’t in panic mode or anything like that. It just didn’t seem that important. I’d spent three months dealing with the anguish of losing my hair, doing all these things to avoid it, and by the time it came, it wasn’t a huge thing. When we walked out of the salon, my friend asked if I wanted to take my newly bald head out for a drink, and I realized — I can’t. I have a blind date!”

For months, a friend had been trying to set Joanne up with a man she knew, but they’d never managed to get schedules to match. Finally they found a date that worked, but in all that had been happening in Joanne’s life, it had slipped her mind. “I just couldn’t change the meeting again,” Joanne said, so she brought out the very expensive wig and wore it.

“When I tried the wig on before, I had hair, but now I didn’t, so the wig sat further down on my head, and I had to keep blowing my bangs out of my face. And I’d never worn it for more than five minutes, and now, two hours later, it felt like a vice and it itched.

Neither the date nor the wig was a success, and neither got a second chance with Joanne.

She found cashmere caps at Nordstrom, and in keeping with her plan do this her way, she bought four and banished the wigs to the bedroom closet.

“I was fine,” she says. “The caps kept my head warm, and I liked the way they looked. I was fine.”

She was “fine.” But is being “fine” all there is?

This story originally appeared on genneve’s blog the g-spot. For part 2 of 3, join us Monday, October 31. And if you have a comment or story to share with the community, please join us on our Facebook page.

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