By Kathy LaTour, guest blogger
Never in a million years did I think cancer would be a part of my life. In fact, until I found a lump in my breast, I probably gave it little more than passing thought. My family didn’t do cancer. It was the old ticker that took down most of us. And yet, at age 37, with a 1-year-old daughter and four stepchildren in their teens, I learned I had breast cancer.
Shock, dismay, fear – you all know the drill. I got through treatment, four months of chemo before any antiemetics. But, when I was diagnosed in 1986, no one paid any attention to the emotional side of cancer. We were, and for the most part still are, focused on “cure” – not “heal.” For me, healing – the “heart” work, as opposed to the “head” work – didn’t start for three years when the fear had become palpable.
Normal? What is that?
I was meeting more women and began interviewing women, men and professionals for the book I was writing. The more women I met, the more angry I became that no one recognized that to be cured is one thing. But, the harder part is to be healed: to look at mortality and recognize that death is near rather than far and that no one who goes through cancer will be the same despite all our friends and family saying, “Aren’t you glad that’s over? Now you can get back to normal.”
The normal of life before cancer was gone, never to be seen or heard from again. Now we had a new life to begin – if we chose to do the heart work in addition to the head work.
This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I spoke in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at a luncheon that accompanied a golf tournament to raise money for breast cancer research.
I presented my one woman show, “One Mutant Cell,” which tells the story of my journey and what I have learned from doing the hard work on healing. After the presentation, a woman came up to me and said that she, too, had been diagnosed with breast cancer 27 years ago – just like I had – and that none of the women in the room knew it, despite her having known many of them for years. She said she just told the doctors to take them both off. She went back to work after 10 days and never told anyone what she’d been through.
And then she said something in my talk hit a place in her and made her realize she needed to start dealing with it.
Dealing with it
When she walked away, other women walked up and thanked me and I engaged in conversation with other survivors in the audience. It wasn’t until later that I realized what she’d said. She had not dealt with what had happened to her for 27 years. She told me she never dated anyone after her surgery and lived alone.
I felt like I was watching Hellen Keller at the moment when she had her hand in the water and her teacher spelled “water.” Something connected with that woman, whose name I don’t even know, to make her realize she’d completely shut out the world because of losing her breasts. And now she got it. She had stopped living and feeling anything because it was too hard.
Since my own diagnosis, I’ve met thousands of women who have gone through breast cancer. We’ve made a lot of progress in some areas and none in others – one of which is talking about the pain of loss that comes with breast cancer. I always tell women to do not only the head work of cancer, which is making good choices for treatment and choosing good doctors. But, I also tell them to do the heart work of feeling what they have been through. It can make all the difference in the woman who comes out the other side.
Kathy LaTour often says that while cancer did not take her life, she has given it willingly to educate, empower and enlighten the newly diagnosed and those who care for them.
Kathy, a writer and editor for more than 30 years, is a senior lecturer and award-winning faculty member in Corporate Communications & Public Affairs at SMU in Dallas, Texas. Additionally, she helped found and now serves as Editor at Large for CURE: Cancer, Updates, Research & Education, a quarterly magazine serving the informed cancer patient. Since its publication, CURE has received national and local awards.
In her capacity as a journalist, Kathy turned her cancer experience into a book, The Breast Cancer Companion, which is based on interviews with more than 120 women and 75 men and health care professionals.
Since the publication of her book, she’s spoken in more than 30 cities in the United States and Canada, delivering keynote talks on the importance of psychosocial support for cancer survivors to both survivor audiences and medical professionals. In 2004, she premiered her one-woman show “One Mutant Cell,” which she has presented for more than 30 audiences across the country.