Cathy’s Journey: Laugh–If You Can
“Humor is powerful, and I had to have a sense of humor to get through cancer.” ~ Cathy Heimsoth
“My husband,” says Cathy Heimsoth merrily, “called me ‘the uni-boober’ after my mastectomy because I didn’t have breast reconstruction,” she laughs. “Neil said it would be a lot easier if it were in the middle!” Her chin-length blond hair frames her face.
“I used to ride a Harley motorcycle. Neil didn’t have a license, so he sat behind me and often gave directions by ‘honking’ my left or right breast. But after surgery, he always said we were going around in circles!” Cathy’s bright eyes shine with joy as she retells this tale.
“Humor is powerful, and I had to have a sense of humor to get through cancer,” she says jovially. She hesitates, then adds “But you have to have a good support system, too. I did.”
Cathy weaves stories that illuminate her recollections–the diagnosis, recriminations and fears, support, treatment, spirituality, the effect on others, and, finally, the impact cancer had on her.
Thirteen years ago, at 40, this wife and working mother of three boys and two girls, aged 10 to 18, expected to be thinking about carpools, sports, meals, and her then-job as recreation director in Hanover Township. Instead, she was suddenly thinking about cancer, for she had received a diagnosis of stage 3-C breast cancer.
And now, because years have passed, she can tell her stories with the good cheer that belies the difficulties. “Your perspective changes as you get further away from the experience,” she muses.
“Even then, though, I felt positive about my diagnosis. But that’s just the kind of person I am.” She crosses one leg, swathed in black tights, over the other. “The way I saw it was that I could sit down or stand up. I had to stand up. I was so busy worrying about my children that I didn’t think about myself. My husband did that for me.”
Cathy had had a tingling in her arm, which, after a complete exam, her doctor diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome. So she went home, relieved it was nothing more.
But, two weeks later, as she lay in bed with her arms above her head, she felt a hard pea-sized knot under her arm. Her doctor, whom she called immediately, scheduled a mammogram—her second one, for she’d had a baseline mammogram at 38.
“I lay on the table with the technician prepping me. I was ok, I was calm. Then the intercom started going off. The tech answered it, listened a second, and said, ‘I’m doing an emergency ultrasound.’ When she said that, tears rolled down my face because I knew.” The many gold rings on her fingers reflect in the sunlight.
Cathy’s biopsy showed a large ductile, lobular and estrogen-positive tumor. She scheduled surgery, during which she had one breast and 13 lymph nodes removed. She opted not to have a reconstructive surgery.
“I wear a prosthesis,” she says matter-of-factly. “If there was a one percent chance that reconstruction would slow my recovery or affect my treatment, I didn’t want it,” she stops, then continues brightly, “Besides, I’d nursed five kids. I didn’t want to have one perfect breast and one tired one.” Her laughter fills the small room.
Cathy underwent eight rounds of chemo. When her hair started to fall out, her family took turns shaving it off. Midway through chemo, she developed excruciating bone pain.
“I remember this slowing me down,” she notes, then launches into another story: one day, wracked with pain, she stepped into the shower, but when she tried to exit, the door was stuck. She yanked so hard that the shatter-proof glass door broke into hundreds of pebbles all over her and the bathroom floor.
“I yelled for one of my kids. I was bleeding, my bones hurt, and I was devastated. My 16-year-old son was the first to get into the bathroom. I think this scarred him for life: seeing his naked mother with one breast–and blood all over her,” her voice sparkled. Now this recollection is funny. It wasn’t then. “This was the low point for me,” she continues, sitting upright, her posture perfect in her grey sweater with ruffles across the shoulder line.
Thirty-six radiation treatments followed. They not only exhausted her, but badly burnt her, too.
For 10 years, Cathy had yearly oncology visits, and then she was finished. She continues with yearly mammograms and blood work with her GP.
“Breast cancer does not run in my family, and I had done everything right.” She fiddles with the sparkly pendant necklace dangling from her neck. “I had babies young, I breast fed them, I didn’t smoke, I exercised. When you think about factors, I was ok,” she shrugs. Because sometimes there is no answer.
“Now, there is so much more professional support than there was when I went through this. At the time, there were no nurse navigators. The surgeon didn’t talk to the oncologist. Records weren’t shared between hospitals.” She leans forward. “I knew that I’d have to have my ovaries removed. So, two weeks after my chemotherapy finished, I arranged for this second surgery. Then I went to see my oncologist who said, ‘Now it’s time for your second surgery to remove your ovaries.’ But I’d already done that. He didn’t know.
“My personal support system was great. My kids’ soccer team wore pink one day. The mothers on my daughter’s volleyball team served Panera’s bagel ribbons. My sister bought pink bumper stickers that said, ‘We love Cathy.’ Sometimes, though, I felt too public, like a poster child. But, one day in the parking lot of the community center, a woman came up to me to say that I’d given her the courage to have her first mammogram.” Cathy fingers her small heart-shaped gold earrings.
It was a long year, but once treatments were over, she could again focus on her work and family–the way it should be.
Five years ago, eight years after her diagnosis, Cathy became executive director at Traditions of Hanover, an independent senior living community. “My experience has driven what I do for a living. Because of my cancer, I have the empathy and understanding to relate to the senior residents. I get to give back every day. I think, in fact, there are a lot of people who, after cancer, want to give back.”
Cathy is also president of the Chemo Bag, an organization which delivers bags of comfort to infusion centers in the Lehigh Valley.
She tells another story. “I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. A couple months after my dad died, I woke up still ‘feeling’ the dream I had. In it, I pulled into the driveway and saw my dad. He hugged me and said, ‘Everything is going to be ok.’ Of course, at the time I had no idea what this meant—and then four months later, I was diagnosed with cancer.”
Cathy briefly extends her arms forward. “Cancer had three periods for me: the intense period during diagnosis and treatment. Then the quiet time of relief. It was two years after that when I recognized the ‘lessons learned’ part. That’s when I could reflect on the happiness and sadness of it, when I realized I’d made amazing friends and hopefully learned many lessons, including gratefulness. I have four grandchildren, and as my family grows, I am so grateful to be here to be part of it.
“I don’t hold onto cancer. This is where I think some people trip up because they hold onto it. Cancer is part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me.” She slides a bracelet up her forearm. “Life is short, and it should be meaningful. Because of my experience I want to be kind and be remembered as kind.”
And that’s another story.
Cathy has taken part in the Cancer Support Community’s drum circle and yoga classes. Traditions of Hanover supports some of its other programs.