By Patricia Hannon, Hohenfels Elementary School October 28, 2013
As part of the 5K Breast Cancer Awareness Run in Hohenfels, Oct. 19, Patricia Hannon, a teacher at Hohenfels Elementary School and breast cancer survivor, gave a speech to more than 200 participants at the event. The following is an excerpt from her speech:
Even though I make my living via public speaking every day, I am actually terrified of speaking publicly to adults.
Furthermore, I'm quite sure I'm about to disappoint you. I have no hopeful words today; no uplifting message for you detailing how cancer was the best thing to ever happen to me.
Nothing I say today will look good on a pink T-shirt. In fact, I'd like to start today with a confession. All those pink gifts everyone gave me over the past nine months to show solidarity with "the cause" -- I had to put them away in a special box, and they're only coming out for the first time today.
While going through treatment, they were a reminder to me of the femininity that I had lost. Once the surgeon cut up my breast and then my hair fell out, femininity was a concept for other people to enjoy; it was no longer mine.
It's only now, on the other side of treatment, that I can consider seeing pink as something other than what I am most decidedly not. I especially like my pink beads; now that the surgeon is done with me, I certainly won't be getting any at Mardi Gras.
I wasn't at the breast cancer walk in Hohenfels last year. I had a move scheduled that weekend, and I seemed to be picking up every little virus that came my way. I was exhausted and sick yet again. Every weekend seemed to be spent in a futile attempt to catch up with sleep and laundry.
The littlest things overwhelmed me, and the move loomed large for me. It was that weekend that I realized I could no longer run a 5K anyhow. At 38, I was officially a shadow of my former self.
Not that I was passive about this apparent decline in my health.
I ran regularly, I didn't smoke, rarely drank, and ate a very healthful diet. Over the course of five years, I saw doctors on three different continents looking for answers to my weak immune system and girly problems.
I ate brown rice, loads of fruit and veg, lentils, and oats every day. I discovered running about two years previous and had lost 20 pounds.
The doctors, using their best diagnostics and experience, said early menopause. One doctor in Japan told me I had too much fire. I smiled and told him he didn't know the half of it.
They all told me to relax, stop working so hard, and to wash my hands. They did their best, based on their diagnostics and my family history. They understood I was miserable, however, both doctor and patient understood their diagnostic limitations.
It was this weekend, one year ago, that I found a lump.
I told myself it was just a benign cyst, like many I had had before. I come from a long line of lumpy, shelf-bosomed Jewish women. Many of my aunts and great-aunts had the same scares. It was just my turn.
I was simply coming of age, I told myself. My lumpy breasts were only another Bat Mitzvah gift, much like a good brisket recipe. But this lump was different. It was hard. I could feel the ragged edges on the lump, and it hurt.
Being a modern girl, I naturally consulted my girlfriends and Google rather than a physician. Thank goodness they had their heads on straight and Google always imagines the worst.
I looked to my ladies for the comfort they always provided and suddenly didn't find it. "Are you nuts?" my girlfriends said. "Get your rear to a gyno!"
I begrudgingly obliged, reminding my girlfriends that I had my last girly appointment, including a clear breast ultrasound, only sixth months previous.
I felt like a total hypochondriac when I made the appointment and even more embarrassed when I arrived.
The kindly German physician told me I had breast cancer on Dec. 17. I had just had my 39th birthday. I had told everyone that it was my "last birthday" that year, as I didn't plan on celebrating my 40th.
Now, I hoped that my words hadn't been prophetic and my 39th birthday truly had not been my last.
The language barrier provided some comic relief in the early days. When I met my breast cancer doctor, he had these sage words of comfort: "Frau Hannon, this will not kill you. You will just wish you were dead for about six months."
Americans often choose to describe Germans as stoic, and my analysis would probably not have been any different 10 months ago.
Going to chemo for the first time was scarier than the maternity ward, my only other experience with hospitals. Previously, I had walked into the hospital to bring forth new life.
Now, the sole purpose was death, albeit on a controlled, cellular level.
I was about to meet the head oncologist, the doctor whose goal it was to kill a part of me while making sure not to kill me too much. As the automatic doors opened, I steeled my resolve and reminded myself that I should not expect any warmth or even kindness from my host nation caregivers.
Imagine my surprise when I found one of the friendliest, most sincere places I've ever had the pleasure to visit. It was full of bawdy laughter.
I was shocked. Why were people looking me in the eye? Why were they asking me to look at pictures of my children? Why were even the other patients willing to get so involved?
One would think that in the chemo ward, self-preservation and emotional protection from vulnerability would be everyone's primary objective. It was only after several weeks that I understood: Everyone here had unlocked the secret to life.
I'll share it with you today, free of charge: All that matters is love, and you can only get it by giving it. And boy, did they give it.
I especially enjoyed the putz-frau, or cleaning lady.
I'm pretty sure it wasn't in her job description, but every few hours, she would wheel a cart through and ask each of us which we would like a pudding cup or a yogurt.
I recognized her tactic from years of working with children. I call it the non-decision decision. She wasn't asking if we wanted to eat, she was giving a choice with what we would eat, and eat we must.
She asked every time with such kindness and sincerity, as if I was the one doing her the favor that I didn't feel a hint of condescension. I made a promise to myself that if I made it through this, I would aspire to be more like her.
And this is what I'd like to tell anyone listening today: If you truly wish to help someone in crisis, be like the pudding lady.
It's not enough to be surrounded by services or people who want to help. Truly helping means making a connection, even with people that might be a world apart. You can give people a choice on how you will help them, but help them you must.
After two surgeries, 16 rounds of chemo, and 33 radiation treatments, I feel the same things today, coming out of cancer, that I did going in: no regrets and lots of gratitude.
My husband and I had already gotten our midlife existential crisis out of the way. That's why I was here in Hohenfels, working for DODDS. I didn't hold any regrets about leaving academia. We were already living our lives as we had dreamed of doing.
In cancer, I didn't find any inspiration to live every moment in the present; that was a lesson I had been lucky enough to learn previously.
The gratitude, however, was and remains ramped up in my life.
When people assumed my tears were from frustration, fear or pain, their genesis was and is most likely still gratitude. I was, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness by my administrators, colleagues, friends, family and students. They all showed me kindness and treated me with dignity and care.
I'd like to give you an example. The day before my second chemo treatment, when my hair fell out and I felt conspicuous wearing a scarf, I arrived at school to find many members of the faculty wearing head-scarves, silently going about their business.
There was never any condescension, only love and dignity.
My bosses, Mr. (Olaf) Zwicker and Mrs. (Ester) Harrison, showed me kindness by making sure I had whatever I needed to get the job done and that my students were looked after by a consistent and loving substitute. My friends arrived with meals, child care and cookies.
They laughed with me through chemo and made sure to ring the phone when I least wanted to talk, which turned out to be when I needed it most.
They brought chocolate, flowers and Cinnabons to my home. I'm humbled and inspired by them every day and I only hope to pay forward their kindness in my years to come.
Another area where I feel gratitude is my health care. I feel especially fortunate to have received cancer treatment in a European country.
Despite what the pundits, lobbyists and talking heads would have us believe, the rest of the world is not waiting for the invention of aspirin. My treatment in Amberg would be rivaled only in the top hospitals of the States, and was expertly supplemented and supported by the Hohenfels Clinic.
No less than eight highly qualified physicians, each experts in their field, gave me their all. My standing here today is as much their win as it is mine.
When I look out at a sea of pink-clad women, marching for a health care cause, I would be remiss if I didn't pay homage to the women who came before us.
Our mothers burned their bras hoping for equality in health care. Rosalyn Carter and Betty Ford spoke out, giving the euphemistic "long struggle with illness" an actual name. The Komen Foundation allowed "women's issues" to finally become "breast cancer."
I only hope that we can honor their passions for social justice by having clear, meaningful dialogue about what's best for women, absent of both social stigma and profit incentives during these turbulent times of high stakes in women's health care.
When one is looking to find their way, it is often best to get lost. This is why I believe in and heartily endorse world travel.
The Japanese have a wonderful tradition. When they repair something that is chipped or cracked, they do so with gold or another beautiful decorative element. They do not try to cover the scars, but instead highlight and thus sanctify them.
It is the fight in and of itself that is beautiful and worth honoring. Many of you are walking or running today to honor someone who struggled and fought.
So, today, together, let us celebrate the fact that there is honor and wisdom in the chips, cracks and scars of our human porcelain. As a breast cancer survivor, and on behalf of all cancer patients, I thank you.