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When Linda McCulloch counts her blessings, she counts breast cancer among them. “I would not wish it on anyone,” she says, “but it was a good experience for me.” It was cancer, for example, that changed the long, red hair she expected to keep until she was old to the bleached-blond buzz cut she wears today as a badge of courage.
After chemo left her hair looking “kind of like a baby doll whose hair had been combed one time too many by a five-year-old,” she explains, she told her daughter-in-law, who was highlighting McCulloch’s adult daughter’s hair at the time, to “buzz it off.” With the highlighter on hand, her daughter then suggested bleaching it. “We had such a good time,” McCulloch says. “I laughed so hard.” Most of the marks that cancer left on McCulloch’s life are not as visible as her short hair or scarred chest. Much of what she learned in August 1998, when she became one of every eight women who have breast cancer, was to live life more daringly and appreciate it more.
She appreciated her co-workers at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, where she works as an administrative assistant in clinical services. They were able to joke with her, tease her when she wrote, “If you can read this, you are too close” on the back of her almost-bald head with black Magic Marker. They were more serious when presenting her with a gift certificate to Bella Spazio or a shampoo formulated especially for chemotherapy patients.
She appreciated the doctors and nurses who treated her and in the process became her friends. She appreciated the chance to participate in a clinical trial. She appreciated the support of her family and friends. She even gained appreciation for the long drive she had made almost daily for 23 years: along Alcoa Highway to UT Medical Center from her Blount County home.
But most of all, she learned to appreciate her Christian faith and to have faith in her own strength. After cancer, she says, future challenges were easier to overcome. For example, cancer, she says, takes away all fear of getting to know people who are sick or dying. “I talk to anybody now,” she says.
She especially is quick to talk to others dealing with breast cancer. After her mastectomy and chemotherapy, McCulloch wrote a prayer, “Thank You, God, for Breast Cancer,” that has been shared on websites and at special ceremonies.
“Because I have cancer, You have made me open to others that have cancer,” she wrote in the prayer. “You have put people in my path that have become friends that I would never have otherwise known. Some of these people have since gone on to be with You, but they have enriched my life and taught me about strength and courage.”
She thinks her fellow cancer patients would agree that cancer does not have to be a bad experience, though she allows that some family and friends “cannot joke about it—and there are times it is not very easy,” she admits.
McCulloch remembers having friends who could not stand to hear her make light of cancer, and she understands that.
“The real heroes are not the patients,” she says. “We are so busy caught up in (cancer), going through it. (Family and friends) are sitting back watching, unable to do anything.”
Still, she thinks laughter and thankfulness are medicine at least as good as tamoxifen. McCulloch no longer whines about having to walk in the rain, she says.
“I don’t care if it rains,” she says. “I don’t care if it is hot. It is out there, and it is beautiful.”
Her advice to others with breast cancer: “I don’t care how you feel, get up and put on your makeup.” Fix your hair; get dressed, she adds. “I wanted my life to be as normal as possible. I went to work every day, even if I had to close the door and put my head on my desk when I got there.”
Learn to let the people who love you support you, she says.
“I have a husband, children and grandchildren that did not care what was cut off as long as they could keep me a little longer,” she wrote in her prayer. “And, Lord, it made losing a breast a lot easier.”
Reprinted with permission by the Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
Copyright 2001; Author, Kristi L. Nelson
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