Surely the most mysterious part of the human anatomy, they are canons of beauty; powerful symbols of intimacy for women – intimacy in relationships between a woman and her lover, a mother and child, with society, and even with herself. Our culture is obsessed with breasts, covering them, revealing them – changing them in every way. Mothers give life to babies with them, making them as miraculous as the stars in the nighttime sky. The miracle that gives life, though, can threaten to take it away when something goes wrong. When a woman finds a lump in one breast as she showers; when a routine mammogram ends up unexpectedly taking all afternoon instead of the usual half-hour, or when out of the blue, a woman finds it difficult to raise her arm – the consequences of these symptoms can be deadly.
Holley Thompson’s face glows. Her eyes seem to dance. She’s happy to be able to tell her story if it helps someone else. She shows a photo on her laptop of herself pre-cancer; with long, wavy dark hair. Now, it’s very short and blonde. Initially diagnosed with Stage IV in May of 2006, the most advanced stage of cancer, she was told she might have a month to live. Holley had no warning signs. There was no lump in her breast. One month prior she’d found an enlarged lymph node in her armpit, on her daughter’s eleventh birthday. She thought she’d hurt her arm. As a dog-groomer, it became impossible to work; her entire arm hurt.
At the age of 43, she was four months behind on her yearly mammogram, but wasn’t worried. When antibiotics didn’t work for her arm, her doctor asked about her last mammogram. She’d forgotten. The mammogram led to a flurry of activity, an ultrasound, then biopsy. She had cancer, a very aggressive type.
She spent that month “scanning and staging” and began chemotherapy June 6.
“At one point, I was lucid enough to know I was dying. I couldn’t talk, and I wanted my family. It was 2 a.m.; I was trying to tell the nurses to call my family. They finally did, my daughter was hysterical. I remember she put two rocks in my hand, and the nurses led her out, she was so upset, but I refused to let go of the rocks. It was my connection to my child.”
How Holley survived is still a mystery. Doctors said it must have solely been her will to live. She went home almost a month later, so weak she could barely eat. She kept throwing up, lost 35 pounds in two months. She spent the summer recovering, with no treatment. She’d put together the Relay for Life and her partner, Mark, wheeled her around the track that summer.
“For the first time, I thought I might actually be able to live for a number of years. Devon was so positive. She was everything I’ve ever wanted in an oncologist.”
“You have to make decisions about life and death you’re not prepared to make” says Susan.
Like Holley, finding the right oncologist was almost magical. Her twenty-something daughter picked up a copy of Portland Monthly, pointed to Dr. Nathalie Johnson’s picture on the cover, and said “This is who you ought to see, Mom.” Susan looked at the cover, phoned St. Vincent’s to see if she could even see a doctor who was on the cover of a magazine, and made an appointment. As soon as she met Dr. Johnson, she “knew this was the person.”
Late January, Susan had a mastectomy. Scheduled to teach at PSU for Winter Term, she was also supposed to go to a writing residency for Pacific University’s MFA program. PSU was extremely supportive. She decided to go to the residency and not teach that term. On the coast Susan wrote twenty-four hours a day and found support with writers and faculty like Marvin Bell and Peter Sears, her advisor, whom she says was a ‘knight in shining armor.”
“Every person who is diagnosed with breast cancer should take two weeks between the diagnosis and surgery and go to a writing residency,” laughs Susan.
Her husband thought she’d come back from surgery groggy and depressed. He heard her as she was returning from Recovery. Susan had been so afraid she’d die, that she was yelling “I’m alive! I’m alive!” as she was wheeled down the hall.
Recovery at home was difficult; she couldn’t even make it up the stairs to the bedroom at first. Susan had drains and bulbs and had to measure fluids. Her husband posted instructions on the wall for caregivers; she had a listserv of people for updates. Susan slept in the basement and remembers feeling she had to have poet Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks, a book he wrote as a result of his own battle with cancer. Initially she thought “I don’t need that book.” but after ‘first steps’ in the driveway, she decided she “had to have Ted Kooser’s book.” After several weeks, she made it to the bedroom. “It was like climbing Mt. Everest,” she recalls.
Heidi Hochenedel, former professor of Spanish at Marylhurst discovered a lump in the shower at the end of June, 2006. She’d just completed a five-mile run and was feeling healthy. She was to leave the next day on vacation. Though they had discovered something on her recent mammogram, her doctor wasn’t worried. Only 39, Heidi had no family history of cancer, is a vegetarian, ate lots of vegetables and fruits, and never smoked. They scheduled a cautionary biopsy after her vacation. Her husband, Todd, is a doctor at St. Vincent’s. The doctor who conducted the biopsy called him, asking if he wanted to be the one to tell her. Todd, quite shaken, told his wife that evening she had cancer.
Still shocked by the diagnosis, Heidi had two different types of breast cancer, and decided on a double mastectomy. Surrounding herself with friends, she had a party before surgery. Everyone brought a stone for a bracelet. Another friend painted her topless on canvas; it elegantly hangs in her bedroom. She had a hat and scarf party before chemo; a few friends shaved their heads. Today she’s lovely with a creamy complexion complemented by dark hair that drapes her neck. You’d never know the battle she’s been through.
Husbands and Breast Cancer
Todd says the experience has been “a nightmare.” He says it’s even more difficult because he’s a doctor and felt he had to help her medically, as well as support her as a husband. He helps with their kids and works. Heidi agrees “he was much more upset” than she was. Husbands go through it, too.
“She would start feeling better and then she’d start chemo again,” says Pondo.
It Will Take Everyone To Find A Cure
by Kerri Buckley
Summer. It does have its own feel – bicycles and blueberries; picnics under blue skies; golden hours and evenings that meander into nights never seeming to end, loaded with stars, music, cool foods and laughter. Yes, summers have magic. Alex Romer, just old enough to have a job at a movie theater in Tualatin could spend days off in air-conditioned coolness doing movie marathons for free. Instead, he chooses to skateboard in almost all his spare time, cherishing dry weather as an opportunity to perfect skateboard skills. “The best summers” he says, “are complete with friends, family, sunshine and smooth hills.” His sister Aleah has spent most of her teen summers working with horses, also coveting dry, sunny days. Time indoors will just have to wait.
Experiences Matter Most
What’s your favorite summer memory? Studies show that people remember experiences most, not material things. A recent poll among Portlanders echoed these findings – summer memories are most unforgettable when family, friends, places and events are interwoven. Little else is remembered. All these comparisons led me to consider my significant summer memories. Most remarkable involved yearly family vacations to South Dakota as a kid, outings with friends, and events only summer could offer – like Fourth of July fireworks displays, camping trips, days spent at lakes and beaches, the Astoria Music Festival, silk dresses, and regular frequenting of jazz clubs with my sister. Summer clocks are synchronized by fun.
Haunting Summer Memories
A few summer memories are hauntingly etched in my mind, mixed with feelings of the new, unexplored, and fleeting rarity of connecting with people you will never see again. One such memory includes my friend Caren, who, several decades ago, was a painting student in Philadelphia. Everything about her was bohemian and original. The summer we met, we were each newly alone in a huge city working at a restaurant on a ship docked on the Delaware River. Most days we worked hard. Days off, we explored the city, beaches at the shore, and talked about all future possibilities. I remember sitting on the sills of her ten-foot high windows, all of them thrown open, overlooking Chestnut Street, drinking tea and watching a rare summer afternoon rain explode over the city, chilling and emptying the streets below. It was Caren who first introduced me to iced coffee, wine coolers, and the ability to survive without a chest of drawers. What I remember most is her laughter, a joyous, musical experience I still hear distinctly. That summer was so short! In a few months the days would cool, our lives would change, our paths separate. In the same haunting vein, I remember my father taking my sisters and me on another rainy summer day to a huge library, remember painting alone for hours, oil on canvas, in our study. They are ribbons, these days of summer, with definite beginnings and ends, connecting all main bodies that make up our lives.
Alex Romer thinks friends are vital to great memories. His favorite summer was his thirteenth, when he and two buddies, Larry and Zach, had no worries except mastering the art of skateboarding. They spent the entire summer learning how to ‘drop in’, collected and recycled cans, shared single sodas and sunflower seeds as if they were feasts, built stick forts, and explored abandoned buildings – a perfect boy’s summer. Lately, I’ve noticed my young neighbor Josh, thirteen, with a new skateboard. I hear the familiar sound of someone jumping – over and over again. He’s often alone, and looks intensely determined. Soon enough, though, he’ll be skating with friends in the sunshine and looking for smooth hills.
Kerri Buckley is a writer and artist living in the Pacific Northwest. She teaches freelance writing, and hosts a literary radio show, The Literary Cafe’ in Astoria.