Their stories: ‘You’ve got to laugh’
Somewhere in the post-mastectomy fog, lying in a hospital bed and having a meandering chat with her two best friends, Kate Holmes realized the conversation had turned to religion.
Keep in mind, one of the friends had lost her mother to cancer and was devastated to see Kate enduring it, too. Her friend was nervous, so Kate, when the conversation turned to religion, gave her struggling friend a sincere look.
“I know what I am now,” Kate told her. “I’m a Unititarian.”
Is it OK to make jokes at a time like that, at the expense of cancer? Shouldn’t it be, you know, serious?
Good grief, no. If anything, laughter is essential through the whole mess of breast cancer, Kate has learned.
Sometimes, it’s all you can do when you look down and see one breast instead of two, when you accept the liquid poison of chemotherapy but refuse a Pepsi, when the dog suffers from sympathy exhaustion and keeps you company as you recover on the sofa.
“You’ve got to laugh,” says Kate, now 58. “You’ve absolutely got to.”
Ten years ago, at age 48, she found a lump. It was no big deal, her breasts were cystic, but she told her doctor about it anyway at her regular physical.
He advised a mammogram and wrote “rule out cyst” on the order. She had the mammogram, and her doctor wasn’t happy.
More pictures of her breast, an ultrasound the same day, right now.
There were four spots doctors didn’t like, so after lunch she had a biopsy.
“I remember walking into the room, and all this equipment was laid out, and I saw this little bottle,” she recalls. “And I remember thinking, are you going to change my life?”
At 1 p.m. the next day, she got the call: The doctor wants to see you.
Her husband Josh, a family practitioner, went with her. It was the only time she remembers having an out-of-body experience. She felt like she was looking down at herself, these two doctors were talking about her, and what they were saying was cancer. She already had been scheduled for an appointment with a surgeon.
That was a Friday and on Monday she was at the surgeon’s. As she checked in, she happened to catch a glimpse of her own file. Written across the top was “Holmes, radical mastectomy, Tuesday.”
And that’s exactly what happened. The diseased breast and 13 lymph nodes went on Tuesday, and by noon Wednesday she was home. It was six days from diagnosis to recovery at home on her couch.
The speed of it was a blessing, but it was hard not to feel like a deer in oncoming traffic. It was so fast. And it was cancer.
“I’m a worrier,” she says. “Let’s put it this way: I was a worrier.”
Everything changed 10 years ago. Their son, Riley, was only 5. He alone was reason to fight. She was young, and a long-distance runner. She had the right attitude and the research.
With her doctor, she determined the type of chemotherapy she’d have — not the strongest dose, but the next one down the scale.
On the day of her last chemo treatment, she, Josh and Riley turned on the white twinkle lights in the aspen trees outside their front door and danced like dervishes through the living room.
In his school journal the next day, Riley wrote, “My mom had her last chemo. She’s all better now.”
Holmes chose not to have reconstructive surgery, figuring she’d used her breast for what she needed it, and because Josh didn’t mind. Instead, she focused on fixing herself inside.
Before cancer, she’d been someone who avoided and circumvented problems.
Afterward, she became someone who faced them. Her father told her cancer had made her grow up, and he was right.
She learned what matters and what doesn’t, she says. Her family matters, and so do her friends. Her work with the American Cancer Society’s Reach for Recovery matters. Life matters, and love, and the joy in a good laugh. Always, always the joy of a laugh.