Thursday, June 17, 2010

Standing Tall

This year marks my tenth anniversary of surviving breast cancer. I just scheduled my annual mammogram, and today share this essay, originally published in The Alpha Gamma Delta Quarterly in fall of 2001, in celebration and gratitude that I am still here.

There’s a lot going on at our house. Earl and I soon mark 20 years of marriage. A college freshman, high school freshman and elementary school freshman are packing their bookbags. We are each beginning something new, standing tall and saying thanks.

Our year 2000 did not begin with a positive bang, but with my diagnosis of breast cancer. Our plans for the year faded as we scrambled to gather facts, assemble a medical team and learn the lingo of our new life.

The year 2000 had surgeries, chemotherapy, daily radiation treatments and worries of the future. So far, 2001 has been much better. We have continued on with life. Cancer is not something you get over. It is something you live through. Life goes back together more simply and completely.

I am not, of course, glad I got cancer. But I am thankful for what we learned. There werelosses and gains.

I lost a breast, every hair on my body, the nerves in my fingers and toes and the security in believing I was planning a future.

I gained a reconstructed breast, a new head of curly hair, more nerve to stand up for my thoughts and the security in being better prepared for what lies ahead.

We do not often get to see what our kids are made of at a young age. But now I know my children more completely. Christopher, 16 when our ordeal began, maintained calmness, faith and integrity. He helped with household tasks, worked part-time and kept up with high school studies and commitments, earning several awards. He heads off to college this fall, fully equipped to handle what comes his way.

Benjamin’s 13th birthday was the day of my first biopsy. His sweet spirit wrapped me in warm comfort during dark days that followed. His happy-go-lucky attitude and ability to make friends reminded me that life is good! He brought flowers, told funny stories and held me on days when I needed to cry.

Hannah was not yet five when she helped me to choose a wig to cover inevitable hair loss. She plumped pillows and fixed tea parties on her plastic plates. She told me I looked pretty on days I didn’t feel that I did. Her drawing of two bluebirds, mother and baby, captioned by the pre-kindergarten scrawl “Surprise Mommie Today” is now in my wallet.

Knowing that I helped to create these children has been the strongest medicine. My daily radiation treatments consisted of three shots of a camera as I lay on a table. As the machine moved over me I had the same three images each morning: Chris hammering out cancer cells with his tools. Ben wiping out cancer cells on his skateboard. Hannah painting out cancer cells with her chubby brush.

I can only imagine Earl’s feelings, including fear of being left with these three children. On our wedding day he promised to love me in sickness and in health. He did not promise to shave my head or inject me daily with blood cell boosters, but he did these things and more, playing out steadfast love every day.

My angel mother flew in from out-of-state, staying for weeks at a time. She reminisced about my growing up, resounding that faith and positive thinking move us through horrible times.

I am often asked what the hardest part was. It was not physical pain, nausea or even fear. It was finding a balance between “This is serious” and “This too shall pass,” and applying that balance to life within our family.

The hair loss issue took close second. It is not a symptom of the disease itself but a visual reminder that something big is happening. As my hair began to disappear a fear set in, then an acceptance and finally a relief when it was gone.

I then displayed bald baby pictures of everyone prominently around the house as if to say, “Look! We all came from meager bald beginnings!” I became adept at styling my wig, tying a scarf, turning up the brim of a sassy hat—but the shock came in the mirror at night,gazing at a bare scalp and fading lashes and brows. Still, I held my head high and followed advice to “stand up and be counted.”

Facing a life-threatening illness makes you wonder how you have mattered in others’ lives. By telling me I was important to them, loved ones gave me spirit to move through the year. There were also those who did not know what to do, but perhaps silently kept us in good thoughts and prayers. From all of this I have learned the importance of sending a card, making a phone call, taking a surprise to someone in trouble. No gesture is too small, or ever too late.

I am told that I was an example for others. Many women say that they have scheduled mammograms because of me. Others share that they now appreciate life from watching my hardship. One friend’s daughter created an award-winning science project on chemotherapy and hair loss. A neighborhood teenager walked with me in the Komen Foundation Race for the Cure and later wrote a poignant essay.

Now, people ask me if I am still afraid. Here is the truth:I may outlive everyone I know. We never know what will happen to us. We cannot control our death. What we can do is decide how we are going to live.

There were many vivid dreams during my treatment. During my nights I was trying to make sense of my days and imagination would spin out Wonderland-esque tales of the real, blended with the ridiculous.

But the dream that was most telling was this:
I listened to a summer concert with my family on a hillside. There was a cottage in a field, covered in beautiful flowering vines. An aging woman in a kooky hat worked among the flowers. As I watched her garden slowly, laboring over one potted plant, I realized that this garden had not sprung from many sources. All the vines covering the cottage came from one small pot, and had grown to enhance the world with beautiful blooms and lush leaves.

If we nourish our one life, it can grow to touch not only those around us, but lives of others whom we may never even meet.

Cancer is not a disease of one group of people. It is everyone’s disease. There must be women reading this now who are facing what I faced this past year. And to you I say this:

Stand tall. Hold your head high, no matter how much hair is on it. Smile. Learn. Be thankful. Stand up and be counted.

Your life matters.


  1. Your life continues to touch encourage, exhort, and uplift. Your being here, everyday, makes the world a far, far better place. I am proud to be allowed to call you my friend.

  2. A powerful essay written by an amazing woman...thanks, Patti, for sharing that beautiful piece of writing. Your life has touched so many. Blessings to you and your wonderful family, Sandy

  3. Your writing is brilliant; your courage inspiring. I count myself fortunate to be among your friends. It is officially summer; we must make time for lunch.