I first met Betty while oncology nurses attempted to start an IV in my arm for chemo. She was receiving treatment next to me, and the expression on her face told me everything I needed to know about her. It was obvious she was having trouble remaining in her chair and hooked up to her own IV. What she really wanted to do was to get involved and help me somehow. That is Betty, always helping, always involved, and always caring.
As the months of chemotherapy and then radiation came, Betty and I would pass one another in the hallways of the cancer center. Her smile was comforting, reassuring, and commiserating. I looked forward to seeing her, to hearing her infectious laugh, and to experiencing the encouragement of her treatment progressing well.
Betty and I attended a Unite for Her Wellness Day at the same time. Both of us were inspired by its mission to empower women undergoing breast cancer treatment, and we signed up to volunteer with the organization. Through Unite for Her, our paths continue to cross.
At one of those Wellness Days recently, Betty asked me a question.
“I’m involved with another organization that puts together a fundraising event in the fall. It raises funds for women in need of mammograms when insurance doesn’t cover costs. What do you think? Would you be willing to help out?”
No one can say no to Betty when she flashes that smile, the one that touches her eyes and radiates warmth.
“Yes,” I told her. “That’s far enough away that I can plan to help. Just let me know what you need me to do.”
Later on that day, while in line for lunch, another fellow survivor gushed her praise. “I think it’s great you are helping with Dressing on a Dime. You will be a perfect model!”
I nearly dropped the salad tongs. “A what?!”
Note to self: the devil is in the details.
As the event drew closer, I met with Theresa and Linda at TC House of Style for outfit selections and fittings. Red Ribbon Consignment also provided accessories to complete the look. Since I am devoid of any fashion sense, the volunteers bustled around me, selected items from all over the boutique, and dressed me up in many different styles and colors. Babies number 1, 3, and 4 busied themselves by taking selfies with my phone and laughing hysterically as I was clothed and unclothed in a flurry of material. After two separate fittings and a lot of educated opinions, three outfits were coordinated and put aside for the fashion show.
The day of the event, I was nervous. It wasn’t the fact that my personal cancer story was going to be read to a room full of strangers. If I had issue with that, I wouldn’t be blogging. It wasn’t that I had to be the center of attention while on the runway. Again, having all eyes on me is also negated through blogging. It also wasn’t that I would be wearing $600 pants…okay, well, maybe that did contribute to some extent.
The big worry was the heels. Since I barely walk straight and without stumbling in bare feet, I was sure a tumble was in my immediate future. Bold, I reminded myself. One of the good things to result from the past few years is learning that sometimes we need to toss the safety net aside and jump—or stumble—right out of our comfort zone.
As I milled around with the other models, we introduced ourselves and shared what brought us to the event. Each of us was on our own cancer journey, and the star of the show, Keely, was a first grader. Her excitement and giggles were contagious, and soon we relaxed. We eased our nervousness through commiseration and laughter, telling one another how fancy and confident we looked as we were dolled up by the professionals.
What I left unsaid during those conversations was the uneasy mix of relief and trepidation I feel in the presence of other cancer survivors. The relief comes from the empathy and understanding we share with one another. The trepidation comes from the emotion I’m aware of right below our surfaces. We read each other and relate to one another, and simply being in one another’s presence can sometimes crack the facade and bring it all bubbling out.
Before our last stroll down the runway, another woman, Robyn, shared her story with all present. She was a breast cancer survivor, living her life at full-throttle with the unique perspective of someone who has battled in order to survive. Now years after treatment and being deemed cancer-free, she finds herself living the worst fear of every “survivor:” her cancer has returned, and it has metastasized.
All of the models were moved to tears. We were playing dress-up in order to raise funds for women that we didn’t want to join our ranks, and here one of us presenting our worst nightmare as her reality. She spoke of her experience with a grace tempered with brutal honesty, and she became the model of what I hope I can be if ever I’m faced with the same challenges.
Breast cancer is glamorized. While we are in treatment, we are warriors, fighters, and symbols of strength to those around us. After the fight is over, we realize we might be those things, but we are also damaged, nervous, and all too aware of what could be waiting for us in the future. If that feared future comes for us, how we deal with it defines us more than any other moment in our lives. That is the emotion right below the surface, always threatening to break free.
I have no photos of Betty to post here. She is someone constantly behind the scenes working, pushing, pulling, and inspiring her fellow Pink Sisters, as she calls us. She brings all of us together so that, when the emotion can’t be contained, we can hold on to each other and find ways to laugh through the tears. She brought the models together, and she gave us the opportunity to stand in solidarity for Robyn, who is one of our own.
For Dressing on a Dime, we strutted, we posed, and we smiled for ourselves, for Robyn, for Betty, and for all who are on this journey. We were celebrated for our endurance and our determination. Hearing my story read aloud didn’t sadden me. It empowered me to stand up as a witness to testify that all of us are stronger than we think, and capable of more than we expect…including walking in heels.
More information on Health Care Access and its annual Dressing on a Dime event can be found here.