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
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.
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.")