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.)