I didn’t want to be different, different in that way. After a cancer diagnosis you are altered. I never wanted to be Cancer Cathleen. People change how they act around you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. They don’t mean to. They just don’t know how to act, do you say something or do you ignore it. They are awkward and that makes you feel self-conscious. I’ve always been unlike others but if I changed the way I acted now, I would die.
I set out on an unintentional mission to make sure I didn’t appear different to the others – those that were not different; different like me. I started with the cancer center. There were incredible people working at the Southwest Cancer Center in Lubbock, Texas. I could only imagine the amount of stress they went through each day. I wanted to give back to the people that were helping me. As a thank you, I began offering yoga classes to the staff of the cancer center. Looking back I believe I wanted to help them but I also wanted them to see me and know me. I didn’t want to be just another breast cancer patient. Maybe I was also trying to have some sort of control over a part of the cancer center.
When I was diagnosed with cancer I was:
- Working as the Executive Coordinator to the CEO of a company 20 hours a week
- Teaching 5-8 fitness classes a week
- Preparing to test for my black belt in Tae Kwon Do
- A fundraising Chairman for a volunteer organization
- The mother of a 6th and 10th grader
- Meeting my friends on Thursdays at 2:30 at Hastings for coffee
I was busy. I was too busy for cancer. Cancer was demanding that I slow down. I said, “hell no”! I pushed myself even harder. The groups I was involved with were my support. If I quit any part of my life I would lose my base. I tested and received my black belt in Tae Kwon Do two weeks after my first chemo treatment. I scheduled chemo and radiation treatments around aerobics and yoga classes. I worked even harder at my volunteering. I worked so hard to maintain the life I had before cancer. What I didn’t realize then but I see now is I will always be different because I had cancer. I couldn’t hide from it. I could continue to discount the reality of cancer but that doesn’t lessen the fear. I could tell everyone that I’m glad I had cancer and not something I would have to live with the rest of my life because I knew I was going to beat it. I made it my job to let everyone know cancer isn’t that bad. It didn’t matter how many times I said it, I never believed me.
I tried to hide under a wig. Wigs were uncomfortable and they itched but wigs gave me a place to hide. I wore a wig anytime I went out of the house. If I didn’t wear a wig people might look at me and feel pity. I wanted to blend in – not stick out. People would whisper – have you heard Cathleen Reid has cancer. It wasn’t meant to be mean, it was just news. I could not stomach anyone pitying me. I understood why they pitied me. Maybe it wasn’t pity but concern. I know it wasn’t pity from the people that knew me. They loved me and wanted me to be ok. There were many prayer groups praying for healing for me. Maybe it wasn’t pity but shock. I was healthy and young. Maybe some people wondered how I could have gotten cancer. If I did, did that increase their odds? Maybe they just didn’t know what to say.
There are numerous options when you walk up to someone that has cancer.
I heard them all.
- “I am soooooo sorry. I heard you have cancer”
- “How are you?” – said in a very sad and pitying tone
- “Tell me all about it. What stage are you? Did they get it all? Do you have to have chemo”
- “You know my grandmother/mother/aunt/neighbor had breast cancer. She sure was a fighter. She died about six months after diagnosis but I remember how strong she was”
- “I am so sorry, how long do you have?”
- “Well, I guess you’ll lose all that pretty hair of yours, then you’ll know how the rest of us feel”
They wanted to make me feel better. How it came out – rarely made me feel better.
When people talk about cancer survivors it used to annoy me. I felt they pitied me. What I didn’t realize was that they were recognizing how hard it was. Recognizing that we cancer survivors have gone through something difficult and survived. I still don’t like pity, I never will. It assumes I cannot survive. Most people felt concern for me, I just saw the concern as pity. From now on, I am going to see it as recognition.
Recognition that I am a warrior – a survivor