The White House Is Bathed in Pink Light for Breast Cancer Awareness, October 7, 2008

Jokes. Chocolate. Prayers. What Do You Say to a Chaplain Who Gets Cancer?

Here’s what you don’t say.

“But, you’re a chaplain. How could this have happened?”

Understanding that her profession gave her no exemption, Debra Jarvis, author of “It’s Not About the Hair, And Other Uncertainties of Life,” still wondered why she, in training for a marathon, fit, who ate well and was in a happy marriage, could get breast cancer.

Risk Factors

The American Cancer Society lays out a detailed list of risk factors. Click here to get the entire list.

Woman: Check

Over 55: at 50, Jarvis was approaching the mark. Two out of three invasive breast cancers are found in women over 55.

Family history: One first degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) doubles your risk. Until a week before, Jarvis didn’t know she had a family history. Her Mom’s breast cancer diagnosis changed this. 85% of women with breast cancer do not have a family member with it.

Race: Caucasians are more likely to get breast cancer. African Americans are more likely to die from it.

No children or no children before the age of 30 have a slightly increased risk. Yep.

Obese. Nope.

Little physical Activity. Nope.

She considers herself a poster child for mammograms, which first raised her doctor’s suspicion.

What About the Hair?

Here’s another thing you don’t say.

“Well, there goes the hair.”

This was an attempt on the part of a well-meaning friend to lighten the conversation.

It was awkward because it’s not about the hair. It’s about death.

Since even well-meaning friends cannot talk about what they most fear for you, they switch to something they think is neutral, the well-known effect of chemotherapy on the fast-growing cells in hair.

As it happened, Jarvis kept most of her hair.

Whatever you do, do not talk about friends of yours who have died of breast cancer.

One of her best gifts was a list of well-known women who have been breast cancer survivors for years.

What Are the Best Messages to Get?

Jarvis says that 99% of the messages she received were wonderful and met the following criteria:

1) acknowledge the cancer diagnosis

2) offer personal compliments and encouragement

3) provide tangible or intangible support.

“It was a bonus if the message was funny.”

The Diagnosis

An oncology outpatient chaplain, Reverend Jarvis learned she had breast cancer five days after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Jarvis’s was Stage II, infiltrating ductal carcinoma, Grade II, 1 node positive, estrogen- and progesterone-receptor positive (ER+, PR+).

She was 50 years old, had been married for twenty years and had no children.

What Did She Do?

Jarvis opted for a mastectomy with an implant and chemotherapy.

She did not follow friends’ advice to examine her own spirituality and find the meaning of her life. That was work she had accomplished in preparation for becoming a chaplain.

She did learn though.

“Cancer is not a death sentence. It’s more like a reminder notice. ‘Just a note to remind you that your time is limited.’”

She also learned to be careful of her caregiver/husband and her friends.

“There is this amazing ping-pong suffering that occurs between a patient and a family member….I knew he [her husband] felt bad, and I felt bad that he felt bad. You can see how this ping-pong suffering starts.”

Where is She Now?

The general care oncology outpatient chaplain at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Reverend Jarvis sees patients who are undergoing chemotherapy, having their blood drawn, getting radiation, or waiting to see their oncologists.

Since the 2007 publication of “It’s Not About the Hair,” she has produced the 2010 video “Palliative Care: Improving Quality of Life for People with Serious Illnesses.”

On Thursdays, we review books by or for cancer survivors and classic children’s books.

Click here if you’d like to order Jarvis’ book, It’s Not About the Hair, from amazon.

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To you and your continued compassion for others on this path.

Carol Covin, “Granny-Guru”

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers

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