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Conversations I Never Thought I’d Have

My name is Kathryn Barker. I am a 28-year-old English and AVID teacher in Carrollton, Texas. This past March I went to my primary doctor to ask about a lump I found in my breast, and a month later I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. So far I have completed six chemotherapy treatments. I have 10 more to go and then surgery after that. 

My whole life I’ve heard my mom and other women say that after being pregnant, it’s difficult to be embarrassed: you get used to displaying some very personal parts of your body. Well, it turns out the same principle applies to cancer.

Conversation No. 1: I have taken my top off for more people than if I were trying to earn a collection of beads. When I met my plastic surgeon, my friend Lana went into the room with me. The doctor went over what surgery would look like, answered questions before I could ask them, and showed pictures of his work. I was feeling pretty relieved. Then, he needed to take measurements of my breasts. I stood up while Dr. Lemmon sat on a stool; he was using a measuring tape to notate lengths and distances. Lana was on the other side of him, facing me. I felt slightly more on display than usual. I had told her I didn’t care if she watched, but when I finally looked over at Lana’s face, she gave me this manly, “wow, nice rack” look and a wink. I couldn’t help but start laughing, which made my boobs jiggle, so Dr. Lemmon said, “Alright ladies, no moving targets.” We both just lost it at that point.

Conversation No. 2: For me, stepping out into the world bald feels like that dream where you show up to school in your underwear. Of all the friends, family, and strangers who have seen me without hair, I was most nervous about my 3- and 4-year old-nieces. Even though my sister had talked to them about how I am sick, I knew this would be a shock. I opened my front door and instead of excitement, I saw confusion and uneasiness. I immediately squatted down. They asked why I had no hair, and I tried explaining how my medicine made that happen, and how I have beautiful wigs I can wear. Dress-up piqued their interest. We went inside for me to try the wigs on for them, and after the last one, they both looked up at me with concern. They asked if I could leave the wig on. My sister apologized, but their honesty just made me laugh.

I did leave the wig on, and we all went to the dining room table to color. They kept looking at my hairline with disbelief and asked if my “no hair” was under there. I would move the wig to show them I was still bald. My “no hair” is now a conversation each time I see them.

Conversation No. 3: After a post online, a friend from high school reached out to me to let me know she is a nurse at MD Anderson. She said that if I needed anything, she would be my personal oncology nurse. We talked about some of the issues I was having, and she gave me fantastic advice. Several days went by, and a new symptom developed. I went to the bathroom, had a painful bowel movement, and then enough blood to scare me. I texted Sorayah and told her I had a very awkward question. She said to ask away, but then she asked me for pictures. I blushed just from reading it. The next morning, I went to the bathroom, and it happened again. I couldn’t believe I was doing this, but I took a picture of my toilet paper and then, the contents of the toilet. I first texted her just letting her know I had pictures.

I needed her to reassure me that she absolutely had to see them. Once she did, I sent them, and then the butterflies flew as if I had just sent the wrong person an inappropriate text or gossip. She told me I had hemorrhoids and proceeded to tell me everything I needed to do and what to buy, and just like that, it was no big deal. Thank God.

My friends and family have been beyond amazing. Sharing these intimate moments has been especially challenging as a fiercely independent, stubborn, and introverted person. For better or worse, cancer has forced me to talk about myself and taught me to be more comfortable with my body. All of these conversations and events are now fond memories of creating even stronger relationships and funnier stories to share.

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