Richard Conger wiped the tears from his eyes. "I always thought a breast
was a breast," he said. "But she said, 'It's all right, I have another.'"
Richard, a retired special education teacher with 30 years in the
classroom, isn't used to crying when he's standing in front of people. But
in early June, at a cancer conference hosted by the Fond du Lac Ojibwe
tribe, he couldn't help it. He was speaking to nearly 100 cancer survivors
and medical professionals about the battle he and his wife, Doris, waged
against her breast cancer.
They married in 1999 when both were eyeing 50. They'd both loved before,
but their earlier marriages had ended in divorce. Their kids were grown and
busy having families of their own. They were old friends, having met a
decade earlier while working at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech
Lake Reservation in Minnesota. She is an Ojibwe language teacher.
They decided to explore the love unfolding between them. They cashed out
their Individual Retirement Accounts and caravanned in their cars from
Leach Lake to La Courte Oreille in northern Wisconsin with only their
clothes. They lived out of a motel room for a few weeks. Soon, they got
Richard would joke in those days that he'd win the lotto and get them a
brand-new trailer. A surprise windfall let them buy that brand-new
doublewide mobile home.
People who know them say they're connected. If she shows up somewhere,
friends say Richard must not be far behind.
"It's romantic, yeah," said Doris, 56, Leach Lake Ojibwe.
"Nosy," replied Richard, 55, Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe.
She laughed, and her face that had looked tired awakened with a youthful
Love - especially a relatively new love that's been waited for - doesn't
deserve the demon called cancer.
I know, because two years ago last month I married my husband. It was a
first marriage for both of us. It was years in coming. Every morning my
husband, John Thunderbird Campbell, calls me his lovely wife, no matter if
I have bags under my eyes, messy hair or, for the last three months, no
hair. Somehow, the effects on my body from my battle with cancer don't
matter in love's eyes.
That has made me think about what it takes to love through cancer.
Recently, when I walked through a crowded hall, an elder patted me on the
back. I knew him, but I don't think he knew who I was. He only recognized
that the scarf on my head denoted chemotherapy, denoted some kind of
cancer, denoted the thing that claimed his beloved's life not too long ago.
There were tears deep in his eyes when we talked.
Surviving cancer can grow love, or wither it like a dying body. Some
relationships crumble after cancer. It's the emotional stress, or sometimes
the lost hope. For some, it's the loss of beauty. For others, it's the end
of childbearing, brought on by some treatments, that breaks up the
relationship. Still others flail under the pressure of it all.
Biologically, we seem to be hard-wired for illnesses that last three
months. Three months is long enough for a bone to knit itself back
together, for an infection to be cured, for normal surgery wounds to heal.
But cancer, and even its successful treatment, often drags on for a year or
more. Friends and co-workers forget why you and your spouse aren't around.
Caregivers, relatives and even spouses can burn out, act out or walk out.
But for Richard, Doris' diagnosis one year ago this month turned into
another way for him to express his love. For Doris, who was with her mother
when cancer burst out of her colon and with her father when he died from
liver cancer, Richard's presence meant survival.
"If it hadn't been for Richard, I probably would have just run away," Doris
She opted for a mastectomy last July 28. But a nurse's scheduling mistake
after surgery caused her incision to become infected. Richard took
responsibility for cleaning it and changing the bandages twice a day for
months. Richard, who had surgery on his hips and knees in recent years,
said no sweat: "I've seen worse," he said, though his nose told him that
her flesh was rotting.
"It hurt me to see her that way," he said, "and for her to know I was
looking at her, even though I was looking medically."
For a long time Doris couldn't bear to look. Finally, she did. It was the
night that she ordered Richard out of the house to get some much needed
rest. She fainted.
The chemotherapy that followed hit Doris hard. The only foods that she
could tolerate were venison and wild rice. Richard and his nephew went
hunting. They got 22 deer, which they butchered and split between their
freezers and those of elders in their community.
Doris believes that the deer meat kept her blood healthy. Before every
chemotherapy treatment, doctors check the patient's blood to see if their
red and white blood cell counts have dipped dangerously low. But Doris'
counts never dipped: a result, even her doctor said, of the traditional
foods she was eating.
A lot of cancer treatment is about hydrating, eating and resting. It's
called survival. Personal beauty, like a lot of other parts of regular
life, can fall by the wayside. I wondered how Doris and Richard, who
impressed me as not only loving each other but also as being in love with
each other, dealt with the changes in Doris' body.
Doris is naturally a beautiful woman with good bone structure under her
brown-sugar complexion. But she admitted that "pretty" was one of those
ideas she had to let go during her long, and successful, treatment.
Richard saw Doris with the eyes of his heart. He saw the woman who went
back to teaching the Ojibwe language while the sutures were still in her
chest. He saw the woman who counseled children whose parents were facing
cancer. He loved the strong-minded woman who put her pain aside to help
"She might not have a breast," Richard said. "She might not have any hair,
but I can still hold her hand."
Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she is
currently on medical leave from her job at The Oregonian. She chronicles
her battle with breast cancer in this biweekly series. She is a former
president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the
2004 Award for Investigative Journalism. She is interested in the
experiences of readers who have had cancer and also remedies, cultural
practices or unusual treatments that have helped them. Contact her by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail through Indian Country Today.