By Lyz DeBoer Kreider, Ph.D.
Last month marked the three-year anniversary of my mom’s last chemo treatment for breast cancer. She is in remission, Hallelujah!! It also marked the four-year anniversary of the day she cancelled her mammogram that was scheduled the day that my grandfather died. She cancelled the mammogram and didn’t reschedule it. Six months later, one mid-October morning, she reached to turn off her alarm clock and found it. The lump. The lump in her breast that would take her, and all of her family and friends, on the fighting journey to recovery. Because, let’s face it, one person battles the actual cancer, but the path of destruction carved out by the disease ravages deep and wide.
One of my favorite memories during that time was accompanying my mom to the “Look Good Feel Better (LGFB)” program, sponsored by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation and the Professional Beauty Association. A volunteer beautician donated her time to teach make-up techniques to women undergoing treatment. My mom came away with a goodie-bag full of fun products and samples. For me, it was special to spend an evening with my mom, focusing on something that was aimed to make her feel (and look) good.
When I reached out to volunteer for the LGFB program, we discussed writing a blog about the importance of appearance in recovery. And it has taken me over six months to bring myself back to those days, to the emotional memories of those days, in order to write about them.
After my mom was handed a diagnosis of breast cancer, some of the first thoughts hit hard… “am I going to die from this?” …. “Will I need surgery?”…. “Oh my goodness, I hope it hasn’t spread anywhere else”… “I wonder how long I have?” … “Will I get to see Jacob and Erin get married?” …. “I’m going to miss out on so much …” “I can’t die…I’m not ready to die…” And mixed in with the fear, the terror, of the absolute worst case scenarios…came the realization…”I’M. GOING. TO. LOSE. MY. HAIR.” (Whaaaaat??!)
Let’s be real, it matters. Appearance matters. To women…and to men, but I mean, really really really matters to many women. How we look affects how we feel and vice versa. We would love for that not to be true, but it is a reality for most of us. The mind-body connection is a strong one! And so, in our rallying around my mom, when…the biopsy came back and, yes, it was really cancer…and after the dust settled from the consults with the treatment team – the surgeon, the doctors who gave information about the chemo and the radiation and ALL OF THE SIDE EFFECTS (and there were many listed)…we turned our attention to…HAIR!!
And so, as soon as they would schedule her, we made an appointment at a local wig shop. Her goal was to buy a wig that would closely match her hair so that, as time passed and the wig became necessary, she could transition seamlessly, from her own hair…to the wig hair. She had a just-above-the-shoulder bob. Her hair was straight and she wore bangs. And it had been blonde since, well, my youngest brother went to kindergarten. So, about 25 years. Wig shopping was an event. I left work on my lunch break and met her, my sister-in-law-to-be Erin, my then two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sofia, and my Aunt Barbara at the wig shop. Anything you do with Mar and Bar is an adventure… a laugh-so-hard-you-almost-pee-your-panties kind of event. This was no exception.
Let me explain. Margie, my mom, and Barbara, my aunt, are identical twin sisters. Yes, twins. And, yes, identical. If you’re not a twin (I’m not) then you can only appreciate what it means, what it looks like, what it feels like, and how awesome it can be to watch two halves of a whole in action. I mean, that’s what they are. Truly. And it’s beautiful, lovely, amazing….and gut-wrenchingly hysterical. They communicate without speaking, and most of the time it’s by laughing. Slap your knee, tears running down your cheeks, catch-your-breath funny. And if you are able to discern at least half of what they are laughing, I mean, saying, and if you actually “get it”…then you’re in for a real treat too.
So, the wig shop was a hoot. I think we all tried on a “wiggle” or two (that’s what Sofia called them). With all of the laughter, you would have thought we were shopping for costumes for a variety show, not getting prepared for Mom’s breast cancer surgery. Tears were mixed in, for sure. We didn’t have to speak the words of fear; we could feel them with every breath. With every new hair style we modeled, the reality of the diagnosis was suffocating. And then Aunt Barbara, said…”Look Mar, what about this one?” as my mom turned to see her face under a bright red Cyndi Lauper style wiggle, and we all roared with laughter. (I love Cyndi Lauper and I love her hair, but that is not a look my mom would ever dare!) But, laughter, it was, that kept my mom strong. The kind of fighting strong that you need to be in order to kick cancer’s butt. And that’s what she did. And Aunt Barbara has always been the one person who could say, or do, just the right thing at just the right time to make Mom laugh.
My Aunt Barbara lives in Michigan, about 8-9 hours away from us (depends on who is driving). But she was with my mom every step of the way. More than that, they are connected in spirit. And so when they were not together in body…they were together, are always together, in spirit. And cancer brought out their fighting spirit. Imagine the fear, the horror…that your other half might die. Really, truly, your biological other half.
The twin connection was in full force during those days. Words can’t fully explain the intricacies, the connection, the synchronization of their minds, emotions, and personalities. Sometimes it is so awesome that all you can do is watch, in awe, from the side lines.
As for appearance in the battle with breast cancer and in recovery, my mom had her twin, a mirror of sorts… a unique blend of spirit and image. Aunt Barbara portrayed a healthier, stronger version of my mom, pulling her, fighting alongside of her. She communicated the message without even having to say it, “you might look like that now, and you might feel weak… but this is you really, this is your appearance.” And maybe not consciously. But somewhere, on some level, that message offered motivation, inspiration, comfort. My mom had resolve: “I will be that strong and healthy again. I will keep fighting”.
Ironically, my mom’s poker straight hair grew back curly. I know a thing or two about curly hair, having been plagued with the kinks my whole life. And it was fun to play around with my mom’s hair at all of the different growing out stages, to help her tame the frizz. (Now she’s a pro, even better than me!).
And that is who she is. That is her strength. She fights not only to win, but to conquer. My mom is a beautiful inspiration of strength, heart, humility, and perseverance. Her genuine beauty radiated from within, illuminating her spirit at the darkest of moments. For her, and for many who battle cancer, appearance matters. At times, the focus on appearance served as a much needed distraction from the fear that enveloped her and all of us.
Last month was her end-of-chemo anniversary. This month marks my mom’s birthday. (Aunt Barbara’s too). And my mom is more beautiful now than ever, with the grace and might of a woman who has triumphed. She is a warrior, my warrior. Our warrior.
Lyz DeBoer Kreider, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who practices in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Find her at DrLyz.com.