Jimmy Carter, Paint, and Breast Cancer

My name is Paula. I'm a 60 year old retired teacher, have been an active runner for over 40 years, and I have triple negative breast cancer. I do not carry the cancer gene, but this is my second experience since July of 2013. After having a 1.5cm growth removed (a lumpectomy), followed by 8 rounds of chemo (Taxol) and 36 rounds of radiation, I was announced clean and clear.

Within a month, it returned. I was experiencing shortness of breath and extreme loss of energy. I had a chest x-ray done and it showed growth in my lungs. At first the doctors thought it was pneumonia. A biopsy was performed just to be careful. That's when it was discovered that the cancer had spread to my lungs. I'm currently at Barnes being treated every 2 weeks for the past year. This round of treatment (carboplatin and gemcitabine) is keeping it controlled and contained.

My message to you begins with Jimmy Carter. One Sunday morning I was making the bed and listening to NPR on the radio. (Yes, I'm a Public Radio nerd.) And a report came on about how President Carter was teaching Sunday School that morning. It wasn't that unusual because he has taught it for many years. But, what was unusual is that he was doing it after recently announcing that he has cancer. I thought ‘WHAT?’ When you first hear you have cancer it's not that you suddenly curl up into a ball and hide, but to be honest, it takes up 99.9% of your thinking and the reality of it shakes you to your core. And here was the former ‘Most Powerful Man in the World’ headed to church to teach, just as he’s done for years, seemingly without paying much notice to what is a life-changing experience.

Jimmy Carter taught more than children that day. He taught me that you can’t let cancer consume your daily life. Of course you should give yourself a few days of emotional ‘earthquake time’ (because a cancer diagnosis is damned hard to deal with), but then make yourself get back to that daily routine as quickly as possible. I continued to run every morning. I walked the dog. I continued to work as a substitute for the St. Louis Special School District. But, the most therapeutic thing? I painted my house.

Painting got me through those awful beginning months. One of our daughters used to work at a large resort in Florida and gave us tours of amazing multi-million dollar vacation homes. I fell in love with the soothing gray palette of the rooms and wanted that look in my house. So that’s what I decided to do. First, painting kept my mind busy. I mean, have you chosen paint colors lately? There are literally hundreds of different (or so they say) gray’s in the color spectrum! Combine that with the planning, prep work, and gathering of materials and equipment, and I didn’t have time to think about my diagnosis. Second, painting is an immediate gratification. In one day I can amaze myself at the physical transformation of my accomplishment. The concentration of keeping a straight line. Making sure you haven't missed a spot. It takes your mind back to a healthier place. A familiar place. It gives you strength to believe in mind over matter.

Believe me… mentally pushing through that wall to just "get started" is not easy. It takes time. The painting took several months to complete. I was going through chemo at the time, but I didn’t stop. I kept painting because being active is part of being who I am. I am a teacher. I am a runner. I am a survivor.

Are there times that I wanted to quit? Absolutely. But, by beginning my day by being me (walking the dog, running, and delving into my painting project) it has kept me connected to my old BC (before cancer) self.

I’ve worked to keep a positivie attitude, although, it's easier to have a good attitude when you feel good. I've yet to be sick or weakened to a point of being homebound or bedridden and for that I'm extremely fortunate. Losing my hair and going through a bout of shingles was the worst I’ve dealt with. The doctors and nurses have told me that activity is the best medication for treatments, so I stay busy. My husband and I travel a lot to see our children and abroad. We enjoy concerts, dinners out, and entertaining at home. I’m letting the doctors treat my cancer physically and I'm treating it mentally by staying true to who I am and getting a few paint stains out of the carpet!

May strength be with you. Paula


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