Paint the Paper Pink

When old friends reconnect they compare their battle scars – literally!

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[October 18, 2018]  When old friends reconnect, what is the first thing they do? Catch up of course, and for Kathy Anderson and Jane DeWitt ‘catching up’ meant comparing battle scars – literally. Jane and Kathy are both breast cancer survivors. Jane a 20-year survivor and Kathy is an 18-year survivor.

The two women have been friends for almost 40 years. In their personal lives though, from time to time the changes they were going through caused the two to drift apart, but they come back together, and Jane said they always seemed to pick up right where they had left off. In recent years, the two were in their drifted apart chapter of their lives, when they came back together and it was a wonderful reunion for both of them.

As they began to talk about what they had been doing, where they had been, and what had changed in their lives they came to realize that in the time apart, both had battled breast cancer. Both had gone through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Jane recently talked about that reunion and said that among the things they did to catch up was show each other their battle scars.

Jane was the first to be diagnosed. She said that she found her cancer in the mirror. She explained that she had undergone gallbladder surgery and soon afterward noticed an oddity in her left breast. It looked like there was something under the skin. She asked her doctor at the time, and he more or less dismissed her concerns. But she continued to watch and saw that whatever it was, it was changing, growing, and moving.

She finally one day decided it was time to share, and she went to her husband Gary and asked him to look at her breasts. He saw it right away, and together they decided it was time to get some medical advice.

Jane said she knew in her mind that it was going to be cancer. She and Gary discussed it and decided that they weren’t going to say anything to family until they had more definitive answers, but that plan soon fell apart. Jane said as it happened, the day she went to the doctor, her parents had an appointment at about the same time Jane didn’t know about. Jane’s mother started questioning why Jane and Gary were there, and Jane recalled, “I couldn’t lie to my mom.”

So her parents were in on Jane's diagnosis from the very early stages. Jane recalled her mom, Shirley Singley, was very supportive, and even though she was 73 years old insisted on driving Jane to her treatments. Jane said it wasn’t really necessary, but it was something that made Shirley feel like she was being proactive in her daughter’s treatment, so off they went together for each of Jane’s treatments.

Kathy’s cancer was found in December of 2001 with a mammogram, and she began her treatments in 2002. Testing revealed she had a pea sized tumor that was cancerous, but she also had cancer in one lymph node. During surgery the tumor was removed along with ten lymph nodes.

Jane's tumor was larger, the size of a golf ball. She said that her surgery was called a lumpectomy, but by the time the tumor and surrounding tissue had been removed, it was what she would call a partial mastectomy. She said that her breast was deformed after the surgery and remains deformed to this day because insurance said that reconstructive surgery was not medically necessary and wouldn’t pay.

Kathy recalls that she struggled with the radiation. She said that she didn’t know that because she was naturally a large breasted woman that would play against her, impacting how her radiation was delivered and how badly it burned. She said even though her cancer was small, she suffered quite a bit with her treatment.

For Jane, chemotherapy was difficult. She said that she knew that she would have her treatment on Friday and by Monday she would be very sick. She said that was hard on her as a mom, because she felt she wasn’t doing what she needed to do for her son Andrew. But, she said the youngster was a rock for her, and very understanding.

She said knowing what that Monday would be like, she bought microwavable breakfast foods for her son and he would get up, get himself breakfast, get ready for school and did it without complaint.

Both women also had strong support from their husbands. Jane said that Gary helped her tremendously, helping her in the bath and bathing her as well as washing her hair, while she had hair. Gary worked but was there when needed, and he went with her on the last day of her radiation.

Kathy said that her husband R.C. also took care of her and held her up in the very tough times. She talked about the loss of her hair during chemo and said it was R.C. who took the straight razor to her head and shaved her when the hair started coming out.

Jane said she also lost her hair. That was something that bothered her mother Shirley, who insisted that Jane would wear a wig. Jane said she personally wasn’t in favor of going the wig route, but she did purchase one for her mom’s sake. Then, she said on the first day she put it on, she went outside and the wind sent it spinning on her head. Jane said she pulled the wig off and said “enough of that!” In the end, she said she really loved being bald. It was a sign of battle and a message of hope when the hair began coming back.

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Kathy was working at the Lincoln Developmental Center during her cancer treatment. She said that as a nurse, she spent time with the children, so she got “a little red wig” to wear to work because she didn’t want to frighten the children with her baldness.

Both women had struggles, and Kathy admits that in the time since her treatment she works to block out some of the worst memories. She said they do come back to her on days like this when she is talking to someone expressly about her cancer, but otherwise she doesn’t dwell on what she went through.

Both women also said that they felt like 18 and 20 years ago, the doctors were less candid about the disease and the side effects of treatment. They said some of the information that was lacking may have been because they didn’t know what they know now, but other information the women believe the doctors tried to withhold to help reduce anxiety for their patients.

Jane noted that she was given a drug that was relatively new and not all of the side effects were known. She noticed that her arm where the drug was injected began developing tremors. She said the entire arm would shake and jerk. She told her doctor about it and he said he’d not heard of that happening before, and she told him, “Well, write it down! It is a side effect!”

Jane carried with her a photo of herself. She said that on her last day of treatment, Gary and Andrew went with her. She hadn’t told her husband, but a road trip was in the works. When they got done with treatment she told him they were going to the Garden of the Gods at Shawnee National Forest. They drove down and spent the weekend. Looking at the picture she said, “I climbed that mountain. I had a hard time doing it, but by God, I did it!” With her arms spread out, Jane looks over the vast scene in front of her in the photo, a celebration of victory and a moment of thanksgiving. She was a survivor!

So, 18 and 20 years later do the two friends worry about cancer today? Not really, they say. The first five years after treatment are the most crucial, but they are both still cautious. Both get mammograms each year. Jane gets hers on her cancer anniversary date.

Jane said that the best message she can send to others is to be well informed, then don’t back away from what lies ahead, “Get mad, and say you are not going to take me!” Kathy agrees saying ‘once you know, then you can fight.”

The women agree the battle is what lies ahead for those who are diagnosed, and the attitude is what will drive you to success. They say, be strong, but not afraid to lean on others when you feel weak. Be informed, but don’t dwell on the negative. Let those who love you support you and don’t imagine that you are in the battle alone.

And, for those of you who are on the outside looking in at a loved one with cancer, Kathy says don’t be afraid to step up. Don’t back away. Give a hug when you can and show the cancer patient that you care.

As the two friends talked about their cancer it was clear that they have been through a lot and came out on the other side better for it. Since their cancer, both have lost their husbands. Kathy’s two sons live on opposite sides of the country and Jane’s son Andrew is an adult. The two have re-connected and their friendship is stronger than ever. Jane says “we are sister-friends,” who even in the years they were separated still held each other in the heart like sisters.

Both are grateful to be survivors, and are grateful to have found each other again. As they compare their stories, and laugh about the funny things that have happened, they also share tears over sad moments, and hold each other up in times of weakness.

So yes, sister-friends is a good description of the two, but we would also add they are 'survivor-sisters!'

Thank you Jane and Kathy for sharing your stories.

[Nila Smith]

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