Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Column: Shouldering a burden to lighten the load

Debbie Clonan is funny. That’s the first thing I noticed about her.

She’s witty and quick, observant and animated. If she’s got an opinion — and she usually does — she voices it; if something strikes her as funny — which is most of the time — she shares it.

That’s not to say she’s lacking in social graces — far from it. You don’t end up with a husband as wonderful or teenagers as pleasant and friendly as hers are without displaying those qualities yourself.

But she isn’t one to hold her tongue. That’s what impressed me about her.

She’s all personality, and she lays it out there for anyone to see. If something touches her, she expresses it, if something impresses her, she praises it, and if something ticks her off, you know it.

And cancer most definitely ticks her off.

“It sucks rocks,” she once said about cancer in an interview about the importance of getting mammograms.

Debbie has been through all of it — tests, surgery, radiation and chemo, drugs to combat the cancer and drugs to combat the side effects from the drugs to combat the cancer. She’s got stories that would make your toenails curl, turn black and fall off.

She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in December 2005, from her very first mammogram at age 41. Her tumor had soft edges, so it wasn’t detectable by touch. Her family doesn’t have a strong history of breast cancer. There was no good reason to think she may have had cancer. But cancer doesn’t listen to reason.

That’s why it’s so vital to get tested. Even if you don’t think you have it. Even if you statistically shouldn’t have it. Especially if you’re terrified you have it.

“I recommend that everybody get tested,” she said. “If you think something is weird, don’t give up until you have a real, determined answer. You know your own body. If you feel funny, don’t let them blow you off because you’re in your 30s or don’t have a family history of cancer. Get tested.”

This is a woman who speaks her mind, stands up, puts her foot down, does what she thinks is right and isn’t anybody’s doormat. And suddenly, her life wasn’t her own anymore. It was dominated by test results, treatments, medication, side effects and statistics. She went from taking care of her husband, kids, pets, parents and pantheon of friends to needing care herself.

Debbie’s response was to open her arms to cancer. Not to accept it, or “make peace with it,” or in any way condone that she had to be afflicted by it. More like to embrace it head on, so she could get a good grip around its neck and beat the livin’ snot out of it.

The amount of research she’s done would put a med student to shame. She’s been through every recommended treatment and course of medication, and soldiered through all the nasty side effects that come from them. Through it all she’s kept up her mission to be the “mammogram police,” encouraging everyone to get tested, and to help others make it through a cancer diagnosis. That’s what I most respect about her.

Even when Deb was sick, she’d call to see how my mom was doing when she was in treatment, or to ask if there was anything she could do to help another friend whose mom had cancer. She had “Stupid cancer!” buttons made up, and has helped make the Kenai Peninsula Relay for Life event the top fundraiser in the state.

Part of her support comes through humor, helping people laugh at a situation they don’t otherwise know how to deal with. Among her many helpful tips: Don’t tell someone with cancer, especially undergoing chemo, that they look “great.”

“What the hell did I look like before?” she said.

Or if you’re going to express your love and support through food, try to be creative.
“Don’t bring lasagna, because everyone brings lasagna.”

Debbie is about much more than cancer. She’s an outdoorsy girl, having grown up in Sterling with a horse field on the family’s property. She’s a talented writer who can project her voice as loud and clear on paper as well as she can in person.

She used to write the Sterling column for the Peninsula Clarion’s Neighbors section. She often used the venue as a platform to support kids in the community, especially being a mom, herself, and a library aide at Sterling Elementary School. She’d interview kids, talk about interesting things going on in the school, publicize 4-H projects and find myriad other ways to point out good things about the area’s youth.

I saw Deb on Friday. She wasn’t up for much conversation, but what she did say spoke volumes about her and what she values most in life. She talked about her girls, how they were having an orchestra concert that night, and how they did such a good job decorating the house for Christmas. She talked about her husband, how he was going to put the finishing touches — including a stained glass star she made herself — on the 17-foot tree when he got home from work. Her parents. Her pets. Kids in general, and how there needs to be more for them to do in the community.

That’s a woman with her priorities straight. That’s a woman who shoulders what “sucks” in life in order to lighten the load of others carrying the same burden.

That’s what I’ll always remember about her.

Merry Christmas, Deb.

Jenny Neyman is the editor/publisher of the Redoubt Reporter.

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