Beautifully Human

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Kathlene Postma, a professor of Creative Writing and Literature, shares her powerful story about surviving breast cancer.

   October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The Index wanted to do more than spread awareness.. We wanted to be truthful and honest. To do so, we are featuring a real-world story from Kathlene Postma, a Professor of Creative Writing and Literature here at Pacific University, who had breast cancer. Here she is now, more than five years cancer free, sharing her story.

   The Index: What is something that surprised you about breast cancer? 

   Kathlene Postma: Every day we pass women who we don’t know and who are coping with the diagnosis or who have survived. There have been many unexpected times as I worked through treatment and recovery when a survivor would suddenly appear and remind me I was not alone. If you or someone you love has to face this hard thing, just know there are people all around who understand. 

   The Index: What do you hope people take away from your story? 

   KP: One out of every seven women will experience breast cancer in her lifetime. There are men who will also experience breast cancer. Early detection has resulted in an over 90 percent survival rate. It’s okay to be afraid if you find a lump—which is what happened to me—or a screening results in a call from your doctor. It’s okay to wish every second this was not happening to you. It’s important to remember that early detection, or even later detection, means you are already not a victim. By getting that mammogram or reaching out to your doctor because you are concerned about a change in your breast, you can be saving your own life. 

   The Index: How have you processed this? Has this shown up in your writing?

   KP: I kept detailed journals and a Facebook page for close friends during the intense first two years after my diagnosis. I hand-wrote pages and pages when I was in bed exhausted and when I was lonely or scared. I was obsessed with marking off days on the calendar and documenting every milestone, mostly because I needed to prove to myself I was making progress. Writing is a superpower. It’s why I love teaching it. Later, when I got more distance from hospitals and medical procedures, I was able to shape some of my writing into essays and publish some of those pieces.

   The Index: What parts of your story are you grateful for? Loved ones, friends, doctors?               

   KP: My husband Scot calmly stuck close by me through the entire process, and I know that was not easy for him. When I started to experience serious anxiety during appointments with my

oncologist, Scot would often take notes and show them to me later, when I could better grasp the information. I wish everyone could have a good advocate when coping with a major illness! My friends in the local community and at the university flooded me and our family with kindness. I can’t talk about that part without crying. The medical staff saved my life and tried along the way to let me feel safe. As time goes by I realize how often the staff made me laugh and how much I wanted to laugh! 

   The Index: How did the laughter help?

   KP: In the preparation room before my mastectomy, the nurse let me know she had survived the same cancer. It was by chance she was working that day and was given charge of me. As I’ve already said, breast cancer survivors are all around us. They seem to show up for me like fairy godmothers. 

   While prepping me, the nurse asked questions about my three daughters, probably to distract me from what was coming. My youngest daughter was obsessed at the time with the movie Titanic, and I said Celine Dion’s song “My Heart Will Go On” had been on repeat at our house for a week straight. It was driving us up the wall. I sang the opening line, badly, for the nurse, and she groaned. 

   When the staff wheeled me through the doors into the operating room a few minutes later, we were met with the “My Heart Will Go On” turned loud on the sound system. The surgeon said to me with a straight face, “We were told this is your favorite song.” For a second, I forgot to be afraid—and believe me I was terrified—and simply loved the surgical team. 

   The Index: What do you think is a vital part of healing from trauma?

    KP: I don’t know if people really fully heal from trauma. It takes up space in your body and shapes you. I think it might be better to assume trauma is the price many of us will pay for surviving. That said, what may help in healing is acceptance that this hard thing really did happen and for some people may still be happening. 

   The Index: What do you think we can do as a school to advocate for breast cancer? 

   KP: We can try to be a little less afraid of cancer, and a little more aware that people with major illnesses are more than the disease they cope with. I think cancer remains a scary word and we don’t like saying it, but the reality is there are now cancers that are considered more chronic than acute—meaning the disease is managed while people go on living their lives.

   The Index: Has your career shifted since having cancer? 

   KP: My relationship with my students has changed the most. I would not have done this interview unless a student had asked me. Even though it’s been more than five years since my initial diagnosis, and I am cancer-free, the more painful memories are still easily triggered for me. However, I very much want my students to be courageous and triumphant in the midst of painful things. A former student has just finished chemo treatments for breast cancer, and she has bravely written about her experience. More than one student has watched their mothers work through this process. I can say to someone who is struggling with this kind of illness that everything you are feeling—fear, anger, sadness, hope—is okay. You are more beautiful and more human, or more beautifully human, than you were before, even if you don’t believe it yet. This is simply a chapter in your story. — Libby Findling


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