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The Funny Thing About Cancer

Diagnosed with uterine cancer, she kept a journal to keep friends updated on her condition. The entries, infused with her rich sense of humor, lightened the load for everyone.

Debra Downing with her "friend," Bertha the wig

Is there anything funny about cancer? I certainly didn’t think so when I was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2014. I was scared out of my mind! I leaned on my husband, Jim, and my friends, family and coworkers at the school where I’d taught social studies for the past 15 years. Everyone asked for updates, so I sent group e-mails recapping my days. A cancer diary of sorts.

Here it is. What did I learn about cancer in that tough year? Read on and find out.

September 26
What an eventful week! I went to the hospital and had a port inserted in my chest to administer chemotherapy. The doctor put me in “twilight” instead of knocking me out completely. Big mistake. It made me very chatty. (I know what you’re thinking: She’s already a talker!) Finally, the nice surgeon had to tell me to quit talking so he could insert the port. “It’s hard to hit a moving target!” he said.


Next up: my first chemo session. I took 10 steroid pills the day before to prepare. They hyped me up so much that at midnight, I was still talking. Jim was not pleased. What is it about husbands and surgeons?

October 13
You know how it says in Proverbs that pride goeth before a fall? Well, folks, in my case, it should be pride goeth before your hair falls out. In its glory days, my hair was shoulder length, auburn and bouncy…like hair in a shampoo commercial.

The other night, though, after I washed my hair, it was so clumped and matted with loose hairs that I couldn’t get a comb through it. I sat down at the dining-room table, my head in my hands. Jim happened by. “What’s wrong?” he said. I lifted my head. “Oh my,” he said. That was putting it nicely!

I didn’t want Jim to see how scared I was. But it felt good, letting him help me. For an hour, he gently separated the strands that were still attached from the clumps of fallen hair. With each wad he handed me, I built a little tower of hair on the table. Art comes in many forms, you know. Unfortunately, I’m almost completely bald now. But, hey, at least I’ll be ready for Halloween in two weeks.

October 20
I almost skipped my second chemo session. The first round left me with leg cramps so bad I could barely walk. I called one of my best friends and told her I was ready to quit chemo. “Now, now,” she said, “let’s just think about what’s gone right so far and all those little rainbows you’ve had in the midst of all of this.” Leave it to her to swoop in and save me from my nerves!


Still, there was the issue of my hair…or lack thereof. The first chemo session, I bounced in with my glorious mane, oozing confidence. This time, I slipped in with a turban, hoping no one would ask me to charm a snake. The nurse had a hard time getting a blood sample out of my port. She tried everything.

First, she told me to put one arm over my head, then the other. Next she had me sit up, sit down, turn my head, cough…and on it went. So much for sneaking in unnoticed! Finally the nurse said, “Let’s try this. Raise both arms over your head and shout, ‘Praise the Lord!’”

Before I knew it, everyone in the room had surrounded me, telling me about the churches they attended. By the end of the six hours, we were all friends. A roomful of rainbows!

October 25
I hope to make it to church tomorrow sporting my new wig. Since we’ll be spending a lot of time together, I’ve named her Bertha. Here are some tips about wig shopping.

All wigs are sitting on mannequin heads that look twentysomething. This does not mean it’ll look the same on you, unless you too are twentysomething. Don’t try the long, flowing wigs that resemble the hair you used to have in college. It’ll only depress you.

The wig saleswoman will put you in a chair and immediately squeeze a stocking over your head—the kind of thing you might wear to rob a 7-Eleven. Next, she’ll bring out a wig made of human hair, which looks great but costs a king’s ransom. She will remind you that it’s genuine European human hair. (I can only assume the job market in Europe must be very bad.) You will inevitably end up selecting the wig that makes you look most like, well, you.


November 17
My veins are small and they roll, so blood tests have always been torture. It takes a very gentle hand to draw my blood. When my oncologist ordered me to set up weekly blood tests, all I could think was, Why me?

I found a lab near work and sat with the other victims in the waiting room. The first three technicians who appeared in the doorway and called out patients’ names were all petite, with sweet voices and small, delicate hands. Maybe this won’t be so bad, I thought.

Then came a bellow. “Debra!”

A young six-foot five-inch NFL-linebacker type filled the entire door frame. His face looked like someone had stolen his lunch. His hands were the size of hams. Those massive hands reached for my puny arm. I had a panic attack on behalf of my veins.

“Wait! Can you distract me?” I said. “Tell me about your last vacation.”

He launched into a tale about his last trip. Before I knew it, the whole thing was over. “How about we run off together to the islands when you finish all this chemo?” he said.

I stared at him and, with all my worldly and sophisticated ways, managed to say, “Huh?” He was half my age, young enough to be my son! He winked and said, “You told me to distract you!”

“Well, there’s only one problem,” I said when I’d regained my composure. “What’ll we do about my husband?”

Our little joke has continued since then. Many times I arrive at the lab exhausted and pale. On those days, he just gives me a huge hug. He doesn’t have to say anything. God bless him for making a hard time more bearable.


November 22
I’ve had Bertha for about a month now and it was time to give her a bath. I went to the store and bought some special wig shampoo and conditioner. The wig shop had also given me printed instructions on the process.

Step 1: Soak the wig for 20 minutes in cold water with shampoo. Do not agitate the wig. How do you agitate a wig, and if you do, is she going to complain?

Step 2: Rinse the wig for 20 minutes in cold water, stroking it gently. I’m sorry, but I am not going to stand over the sink for 20 minutes to stroke Bertha. I gave her a pat or two and went back to watching TV.

Step 3: Remove wig gently from the water, shake only once, then squeeze the wig and pat dry. Okay, I can do that.

Step 4: Put wig on wig base and allow to air-dry overnight. Good grief, does it take that long? Well, I must have upset Bertha because my nice wavy wig is now as straight as straw. I plugged in the electric curlers to see what I could do to get those waves back. Jim pointed out that I am now talking to Bertha as if she’s human.

P.S. If I don’t show up for church tomorrow, it’s because I’m having a bad wig day.

February 2
My oncologist is very pleased with my progress, but the radiologist suggested radiation treatments for five weeks. My heart sank when I found out there’s a 20- to 30-percent chance of the cancer returning. After much prayer and research, I decided to buy that “insurance policy” and undergo radiation every afternoon after school to reduce the risk.

Life with cancer is a constant ebb and flow of victories and defeats. Sometimes when I’m curled up in bed just feeling awful, my mind goes to a lonely place. I feel like a bear is chasing me. If I run fast enough, I might outrun it. But…I might not. It’s those times that my little Chihuahua, Teddy, will hop into bed with me. Somehow he just knows. No wonder Jim got me a bumper sticker with a paw print on it that says, Who rescued who?

Everyone’s prayers and the Lord’s mercy have seen me through. Every place I turned I found love and compassion: my church, my neighbors, my family, my school, my doctors and nurses, my dog, my Bible. I am grateful for all of you.


April 14
I’m a free woman! I just finished my last radiation treatment. At my “exit interview,” the nurse handed me a brownie to symbolize sweet endings. She also gave me a certificate with a very official-looking seal on it honoring my dedication and persistence. Mother’s been driving me to every appointment, even though she’s 88 and has to sit on a pillow to see over the steering wheel. Now that’s dedication.

The radiation oncologist chatted with Mother in the waiting room while I went over some last-minute things with the receptionist. Mother turned to me with great sincerity and said, “The doctor said you failed the process, but just remember, dear, you’re finished. So that’s good news.” Failed? I looked at my doctor in shock. His face was beet red. “No, no, no,” he said. “I didn’t say failed, I said sailed through the process.”

August 23
It’s been a year since my diagnosis. My CT scans and blood work look good, although my health will be monitored closely for the next five years.

The weirdest thing about being cancer-free? I have nowhere to go after school every day! No chemo. No radiation. No Caribbean vacation planning with my favorite technician. It almost makes me feel lost. You get accustomed to seeing the same people every day and I miss them. But as my doctor says, “We don’t want repeat business.” Amen to that!

My hair is growing back slowly but surely, so maybe Bertha will get a well-deserved vacation. Actually, come to think of it, she’s about ready to retire for good.

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