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A different take on ‘Crazy Sexy’
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Whenever a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, I always think of a TED talk by Bruce Feiler, the author of the book, The Council of Dads.
“Cancer, I found, is a passport to intimacy,” he said. “It is an invitation, maybe even mandate to enter the most vital arenas of life.”
Being present, breaking the rules and letting go of life’s disappointments seem to be among those arenas. I’ve always been willing to throw out the recipe and improvise ingredients. But I will admit, I have cried when my meal didn’t work out.
As I walked into Holly Pratt’s cozy log home in Wilson, the smell of apple bread made with cider and fresh apples from a molasses cookie recipe made me feel immediately at home. Beau, her border collie, wagged his tail and nestled in at our feet as we talked about her 10-year battle with cancer.
“I do believe that I am different‚” Pratt said. “There is a clarity about some things that has revealed itself through this process. It affects you in ways you don’t really expect. You approach things a little differently, with confidence, I guess.”
As a civil engineer, Pratt was very pragmatic about her early diagnosis with breast cancer and its recurrence last year. She has lobbied congress for longer hospital stays and participated in studies to help combat the most common cancer in women. The American Cancer Society estimates 232,340 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and 39,620 will die as a result.
Pratt is one of the lucky ones. After her first mammogram as an adult revealed tumors the size of a pencil tip in her left breast, she underwent surgery to remove the ductal tumors and came out with what they call “clean margins.”
“When you are first diagnosed you don’t know there is another side,” she said. “But because the prognosis was good, I had the luxury of knowing I was going to be OK.” She was 40 years old and it was two days before Christmas. Her daughters were 3 and 6 years old. So she scaled back her Christmas Eve party and allowed friends to bring meals and take her kids on adventures.
Like Kris Carr, author of Crazy Sexy series, who turned the lens on herself and defied a much more life-threatening form of cancer by finding a circle of caregivers to take charge of her health, Pratt told herself that she was young and strong. And she learned to be patient with herself.
Ten years later, as the holidays rolled around again, Pratt found a lump on her right breast during a routine visit with Nurse Practitioner Theresa Lerch. This time a more serious procedure was involved.
Pratt went back to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, where she had gone for her first surgery, and got the “beta” to inform her treatment. It was stage 2B lobular carcinoma with 35 characteristics.
Chemotherapy and radiation, or just radiation? She was willing to go either route but felt relieved when she picked the longer straw, even though chemotherapy meant she would lose her hair.
Three weeks into her eight-week course of chemo, which she began at St. Johns Medical Center in December, Pratt was ready to shave her head. But there wasn’t enough time to make an appointment at the salon before her annual party.
“It is a lesson in letting go,” she said. “All your hair is coming out in clumps. It’s Christmas Eve. I wore a headscarf to Christmas Eve dinner.”
Friends brought more scarves and meals, marveled at the roundness of her head and the bright blue in her eyes. She was never going to be a wig girl, she said.
The loss of her long blond hair was the most startling physical change from cancer, but her body went through so much more. There were intense body aches, the tingling feeling that came with the shots to increase her white blood cells, the inflammation of her skin and the disintegration of her nails.
“It is wild to be injected with something that they have to wear full hazmat suits to give you,” she said. “Your body is like a war zone. You just have to put on a brave face and keep going.”
The intimacy that she found with her husband, Warren, her daughters and her friends was like a passport that gave her courage to try new things like Reiki, creative writing, and horseback riding when she felt better. This summer she went on a bike trip in Italy and participated in Stripping for a Cure, a fly fishing fundraiser.
There were days when she felt like doing nothing, especially when she was alone during her seven-week radiation vacation, as she called her time at a friend’s house in Park City. But sexy is not a word Pratt said she would ever associate with cancer. When she was sick, she looked in the mirror and she said she felt OK.
“Women are lucky, because when we lose our hair, our eyes become more of a focus,” she said.
Pratt vividly remembers moments of vulnerability, like the time she was at the grocery store and a woman she didn’t know stared at her scarved head, feeling sorry for her.
But she learned to smile in the face of sadness and turn vulnerable questions around. Instead of being a victim she began asking, “Why do you ask?” If someone has a friend or family member that could benefit from her answer, she is always happy to tell her story.
“The survivor piece, it’s almost for other people,” she said.