Saturday, October 27, 2012

Breast Cancer Awareness: Fighting, Surviving, Living -- and Laughing.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Actually, because of my niece Linda, I'm already well aware of this horrific disease that kills a woman in the U.S. every two minutes.  One December day in 1999, in her regular self examination, she found a lump in her  breast.

She called her doctor and he had her come in for a biopsy. On December 30, she got a call from the doctor. "I feel really bad that I have to tell you this," he said, "but you have cancer."

With New Year's Day coming up and concerned at how Linda was going to take the terrible news, the doctor invited her and family members to his office to talk. Along with other family members, I was in the conference room as the doctor explained Linda's options.

Just like that, Linda's world turned upside down. One day with a husband, two little kids, extended family, many friends, and her own business (a hair salon), she had a full, happy life with everything to look forward to. The next day she was face to face with dying and losing it all. 

Today, 13 years later, after rounds of chemo, losing and regrowing hair, and never-ending tests and follow-ups, Linda is a breast cancer survivor. She is also co-founder and operator with fellow breast cancer survivor, Kelley Balkus, of The Breast Friends Connection, which provides critical information and emotional support to women with breast cancer. Read more about Linda and Kelly here.

Linda is pictured here on October 21st at Elm Park in Worcester, Mass. at a fund-raising walk to help women fight breast cancer.

Also there were Linda's daughter Karina and son Cam, who were only 4 and 3 respectively when their mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Having watched their mom cope with the disease almost their entire young lives, they are fully aware of it.

"But they are not afraid of it," Linda is quick to point out. "They see that I am dealing with it."

It was a beautiful, picture-perfect fall day. The park was packed with hundreds of people, many of whom were survivors like Linda and Kelly. Survivors were honored with their own pink tent.

I have never seen so much pink in one place. Considering that this gathering was about fighting and living with breast cancer, I was also surprised to see so many happy faces. To a casual observer, it was one big, wild party.

Here is a group of "party-goers." The pink survivors' tent is in the background. Some of the outfits were, well, flashy and a bit over the top. People felt free to engage in all kinds of impromptu antics, as in this Napoleonic pose by Kelly's friend George (nice name).

All the smiles, colorful costumes, and goofing around, did not detract one iota from the deadly serious reason why so many people had come together at this park: to call attention to the scourge of breast cancer and to enlist others in the fight against it.

Nothing bespoke the importance of this gathering better than the appearance of Mayor Joe Petty of Worcester, shown below addressing the crowd. He praised the effort and promised that it would continue to have the city's full support.

As you can see in the photo, the crowd was overwhelmingly women.  Kelly's George and I were among the few men and neither of us wore pink, but our hearts were fully there. And I do display pink throughout the year every time I play tennis, which is three or four times a week.

During breaks from the action, I guzzle water from my pink water bottle with a breast cancer ribbon on it. Pink water bottle?  I know, not exactly a manly thing when the tennis competition is often fierce.

When I first started using my pink water bottle, I got looks and some ribbing.  But I gave it right back. I held up my pink water bottle and, growling like a watch dog ready to pounce, said, "It takes a REAL man to have a pink water bottle." And then, rubbing it in, I would take a long swig.

Now my tennis guys are used to my pink water bottle. Or maybe they're just scared I'll deck'em.

Next on the agenda for our day for breast cancer was an unusual event. Actually, I had never heard of such a thing, which was one reason I wanted to go. At 4 P.M, my wife Barbara and niece Linda and I went to see a one-woman play, "In the Pink," about one woman's struggle with breast cancer.

She is Ann Murray Paige, pictured below, and the story she tells is her own. With this video, you can hear it in her own words. She was performing at the theatre of Notre Dame Acadamy, Worcester, Mass.  where she had gone to school. A native of nearby Shrewsbury, she graduated from the all-girls Notre Dame Academy in 1983.


The play was directed by Virginia Byrne, a former neighbor in Shrewsbury and a longtime friend. Ms. Byrne is the theatre director at Notre Dame Academy. The two women worked together closely for weeks to get the show ready for the stage and a live audience.

Before opening day, Ms. Byrne had this to say about the play: "I think the kids will see a really human, very, very pretty woman, who's dealing with crap and surviving and laughing and sharing."

Laughing? About living with breast cancer?

Read on.

Ms. Paige, 47, had a 15-year career in Maine as a TV journalist before leaving to start a family and becoming a mother of two. She was diagnosed with Stage 2, middle-of-the-road breast cancer in 2004.  Thinking that the best way to be done with cancer was to have her breasts removed, she had a double mastectomy. She decided against breast implants.

But in 2010, cancer returned, this time to her lungs. She says that she does not have lung cancer but breast cancer in the lungs. Asked by Ms. Byrne about her reaction to the return of cancer, Ms. Paige said that her feelings could best be represented by her middle finger.

True to her word, in the play she gives her cancer the finger. But it does not come out as anger but more like this:

OK cancer, you're back. But you are NOT, repeat NOT going to run my life. I'm going to live. I'm going to enjoy life. I'm going to be happy. And there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Not only that, I'm going after you. I'm going to tell the whole world how to deal with your crap!

"In the Pink" opens to the sound track of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life."  It sets the perfect mood for this play, which is far more than just about Ann Murray Paige. It is about life. In Ms. Paige's words, it is a "ridiculous ride" that is "universal."

Though Ms. Paige is not a trained actress and this was the first time she had ever performed on stage before a live audience, she quickly connected with her mainly female audience. With her hands on her hips, she stared down the audience, declaring, "I know who I am. Who are you? I know why I'm here. Why are you here? An excuse to get out of the house?"

Not expecting to be talked to so directly and forcefully, the audience hesitated. People, including me, looked around as if to say, what? Then came smiles, quickly followed by ripples of laughter.

Talking about the effects of chemotherapy, she mused about her years as a TV reporter. "I wanted to be Katie Couric," she said. "I ended up looking like Matt Lauer."

More laughter.

But for me, a guy in an overwhelmingly female audience, the funniest one was when she talked about what she did ten minutes before going into the operating room at Mass General Hospital for her double mastectomy. I know. What could possibly be funny about that?

Listen to her: "I was panicking inside, absolutely losing my mind, when I realized if I didn’t laugh about something I might actually implode.... And then it hit me that in ten minutes, even if I ever wanted to, I’d never be able to flash anyone in my entire life. And so I didn’t want to miss my chance."

At the entrance to the elevator, she stood before a guy, a complete stranger. She whipped open her hospital johnny and shook her breasts in his face. She is sure she made his day. And she went in to have her breasts removed "feeling better."

Well, I laughed -- and so did the whole house.

And so it went. When the roughly 40-minute performance ended, Ann Murray Page and her friend and director Virginia Byrne stood on the stage holding hands and hugging -- to a standing ovation. Linda, Barbara, and I were on our feet clapping.


The show is far more than laughs and entertainment. Throughout, Ann Murray Paige passes on important lessons that she has learned dealing with first a surprise diagnosis of breast cancer and then a recurrence. As the cover from her book, "Pink Tips," says, it is "breast cancer advice from someone who has been there."

"Pink Tips" is available at and  Amazon.

After the play, Ms. Paige had a "meet and greet" for the audience. Here she chats with Kelly and Linda.

I went up to her and said, "You were terrific. I loved it." Then I told her that I picked up her book from the table and put it in my pocket. "I was going to steal it, but I decided to pay."  Realizing what she was dealing with, she quickly grabbed my money.

Here she is snatching the cash.

Ann Murray Paige and George Francis Pollock III then made up and parted as friends.

Final Update: On March 17, 2014, 10 years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ann Murray Paige died, giving the disease the middle finger to her last days. She was 47. Read her obit.

So long and keep moving.

NOTE: George Pollock's novel, State Kid: Hero of Literacy is now available as an E-book on Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes & Noble ( Nook). Billy Stone was a foster child. He ran away from abuse.  He went to juvenile prison. He went up from there.  And he did it his way. Through the power of the written word.

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his real-life experiences growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison; "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life; "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story

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At October 30, 2012 4:49 PM, Anonymous Linda said...

Great story. I don't have any in my family but many friends who are survivors. One close friend who I have worked with at two places, a nurse, has a strong family history of cancer. Her mother died of breast cancer. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 18, then breast cancer in her 30's and a melanoma shortly after. Then 18 months ago she was diagnosed with a second primary breast cancer and had to go through treatment again. She is remarkable and has a positive attitude. Early this year, a month or so after her 60th birthday, she had a party. She said it was not a birthday party but a celebrating her life party. It was held at a offbeat, fun art museum in Baltimore and it was a blast. I am amazed at the strength of people


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