The truly caring, we are told, feel not sympathy but empathy. They feel someone else's pain. Or someone else's joy. Emotionally and intellectually, they become as one with the target of their attentions. True emphathy, however, is rare. Instead we may find ourselves moved by an incident or a cause and as a result we may make a commitment to address it. But emotions ebb and commitments wane. And so, as I watched men and women in pink swarm the streets of Washington, saw coaches with pink trim on their sideline hats, saw pink ribbons proclaiming a pledge to eradicate the disease that accounts for the deaths of more women than any other illness, I wondered if any of us, on the safe sidewalks, can really know what it's like to find ourselves locked in the life and death struggle against breast cancer, a vicious force that robs health and scars both body and mind.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about a restaurant in Hull, Massachusetts, Jake's Seafood, with marvelous food and a large and faithful band of customers who come not just for the food but for the embrace of the O'Brien family. But the O'Brien family is made up of more than O'Briens. One of its draws is not an O'Brien at all, at least not technically. Her name is Kathy Mitchell--Raffy to friends and family--who tends bar and is on a first-name and "preference" basis with everybody who walks in the door. And who ten years ago faced, and feared, what could have been her death sentence.
To see her, if you did not know her story, would give you a wrong idea. Kathy is tall, blonde, beautiful, vivacious. One would never suspect how near she came. And so I asked her; I made no pretense that I could feel her pain; it was she, not I, who had to sit there before a doctor she barely knew and be told she had cancer. And, even if she survived, dramatic surgery, long recovery, financial hardship, an uncertain future.
This is Kathy's story.
Ten years ago Kathy Mitchell led a life we dream about--she worked two jobs (for TWA and at Jake's, waiting tables), took advantage of her airline work to enjoy three days in Rome or to take a night flight to San Diego to spend a weekend in the sun (if you lived in Massachusetts, you'd understand the allure). She walked, lifted weights, just, as she put it, "normal, single, fun loving me." And then she had the moment women dread: In the mirror, she could see that her breast was swollen. An examination led to a mammogram, discovery of calcification, a needle biopsy. Through it all, upbeat, confident, almost unconcerned because she "felt fine." She felt fine but she had cancer. She would have to have a mastectomy (sir, do not even attempt to pretend that as a man you can "feel her pain"). After losing her breast, she might then have to undergo chemotherapy (a dreadful, sickening prospect). Single and working two jobs, she had just bought a condominium; now she was told she would not able to work "for a while." Even surrounded by friends and family, confident in her doctors and "feeling fine," Kathy was in tears. She backed out of the purchase of her new home. She told her employers at Jake's and TWA that she would not be back for a while.
The surgery--a combined mastectomy and reconstruction--was a success and there was no need for chemo. (An aside: Kathy was lucky and knows it; another friend, Mary, a terrific woman who cuts my hair, has just gone through breast cancer surgery herself; the reconstruction failed and she is unable to work and still waiting to get fully back to what had once been her "normal" self.)
After the surgery, Kathy recuperated at her parents' house for a month; she couldn't drive; she had lost all motion in her left arm and most of her upper left side. She went back to the hospital to deal with an infection. She had worked at the check-in counter for TWA and had carried trays at Jake's, but her strength was gone. Ten years later, she still lives in fear that her cancer will return.
Surgery had not miraculously given her back the life she had before. But she is a part of the Jake's family, an O'Brien by extension, and took up a new life behind the bar where she is the shining greeting face of the franchise. She is a survivor but the path to survival has not been an easy one.
I should note here that Kathy Mitchell, if she were writing this, would have written it much differently. The pain, the tears, the fears, the scars, the many changes in her life, are real, but that's not the way she would tell the story. Her notes to me are full of statements like these:
Having had breast cancer has made me a better person. It was the most loving . . . experience of my life. It has made me become very open to others. If someone tells me they know someone that has been diagnosed, I offer to call them. Strangers, friends, aunts, sisters, anyone, there are no limits.
She read an article about a woman who had lost her breasts to cancer: Kathy called her ("she was grateful to this crazy stranger that called.")
There are three lessons to Kathy's story. One is about caution--the need to act, not wish. Kathy is terrific but if she had not taken that first step, telling her doctor about her swollen breast, she would not be alive today. One is about the limits of pretending we on the outside can know what it is really like on the inside: One does not magically go from diagnosis to survival and finding a cure for this killer is essential because even for those who live, the price is high and the pain--physical, mental, financial--is dramatic. The third is about attitude: When Kathy Mitchell tells her story it is about her confidence in her doctors and the love of her family and it is in ALL CAPS. Her young woman doctor is still, to this day, Kathy's HERO. At the airport, ALL the state troopers were her friends (one arranged for Kathy to talk to his wife about what she was going through). "I LOVED MY LIFE BEFORE MY BREAST CANCER, BUT LOVE IT EVEN MORE NOW! Now it was my turn to reach out to those who were there for me."
I have not added the capitalization: That's Kathy and how she talks about what she has gone through and the sisterhood she has joined, a sisterhood not only of survivors but of sufferers.
This is breast cancer awareness month. There is nothing that more needs, or deserves, our support than the campaign to wipe out this horrible disease that attacks our mothers, our daughters, our wives, our children, our friends. The Susan G. Komen march for the cure is not about science, it's about Kathy, Mary (the Washington hair stylist), and all of the others like them who have found themselves locked in this terrible struggle for life. Survival happens but it is not guaranteed; pink is not about fashion, it's about hope.