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Shades of Gray

Getting Well : Cancer Society Volunteers Dispense Right Kind of Medicine

June 25, 1992| Agnes Herman | Agnes Herman is a writer, lecturer and retired social worker living in Lake San Marcos

Some of us lower our voice to a whisper when we speak of cancer, just as we do when speaking about sex, homosexuality, unwed parenthood and even pregnancy. The fact is, cancer will strike 8.7 million women, men and children who now live in California, and half of them will be between the ages of 55 and 74. One out of every 10 California women will have breast cancer. Perhaps it is time to stop whispering.

My friend and neighbor, Barbara Schmad, discovered a lump in her breast almost two years ago. From that moment of discovery, Barbara faced reality and neither whispered nor faltered. Cancer, she and husband, Bob, decided, was an enemy to be confronted and conquered. This remarkable woman in her mid-50s, with faith, family and friends on her side, did not and does not flinch.

When I met her one day at the mailbox during the time of her chemotherapy, she was totally bald. Without embarrassment, she looked me straight in the eye and spoke about pressing matters: new spring plantings and the proliferation of snails on the hill.

Being able to talk about her illness and treatment has helped Barbara walk through it. With confidence, she explains: "I was not frightened and I am not frightened. I have good doctors and I knew they would do what had to be done."

Barbara has not lost her sense of humor. "As a growing girl, I was burdened by my generously endowed bosom. Dresses didn't hang straight . . . blouses gaped. 'They' (breasts) were in the way; often, I wished them gone! Well, God answered my prayers! So, be careful what you ask for!"

On the day when her small grandsons were alone with her, they inquired, "Are you really all right. . . . Are you going to be OK?" Barbara was deeply touched and equally pleased at the opportunity to talk to the youngsters. I am certain that this retired schoolteacher taught them a lesson not only about cancer, but about courage and confidence as well. She, in turn, learned that the support of family and friends comes in all sizes.

Barbara has found that her willingness to talk about her illness helps others to break out of their shells of silence, to share personal stories of their wars against cancer.

JoAnne Jones, of Vista, agrees that "sharing," listening to others who have experienced the same traumas, is extremely helpful. JoAnne had her breast cancer 7 years ago. The American Cancer Society calls her a "resilient survivor." JoAnne said a society support group she attended saved her from devastation and helped her to recover mentally as well as physically. Others who had been through the surgery and its aftermath helped her understand that she did not need to be physically perfect in order to be a whole woman.

Barbara and JoAnne are youngsters compared to Lucille Sholty. Lucille is a sparkling woman in her 80s. Fourteen years ago she had a mastectomy. Today, she sits at the reception desk of the Cancer Society in Escondido. Every Tuesday and Friday she welcomes folks to the office, provides information, literature and the sunshine of her own well-being.

Lucille says she is "only" a volunteer. Such modesty does not nearly describe her work. The confidence and support that she transmits are gifts to the frightened and the hurt.

Bejai Higgins was struck by a disabling illness in 1984. Her beautiful spirit and concern for people emanate from her as she speaks of the "tricks of her trade." Formerly a management consultant, Bejai is a family therapist and an intern at the Cancer Society. During the two days a week that she spends in North County, Bejai makes house calls and sees people in the office. She reaches out to families and patients who are confronting the fears and anxieties that accompany cancer.

Bejai is a realist who helps her clients achieve openness. She points out that a patient in the midst of illness and pain who always answers "I'm fine!" to concerned friends and family, merely succeeds in increasing everyone's stress. When loved ones know that the patient is miserable, uncomfortable and frightened, they are put off, rejected, by the dishonest response.

To the husband who complains that "there is nothing I can do . . . I feel so helpless," Bejai is filled with ideas. "Do the grocery shopping, order some flowers, check in with family and friends." To the child who wishes to help, Bejai suggests "give Grandma a foot massage, a hand massage; I'll teach you how."

When friends say "Can I help?" she advises the patient to be specific. "Please feed the dog on Wednesday. Would you put out my garbage on Friday?"

Bejai's outreach to families and patients extends beyond clever coping mechanisms. She believes that humor is vital medicine, and one of the best channels for fear.

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