A breast cancer survivor’s story retold

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In the decade or so that I have been a columnist, I have seldom repeated a story. Somehow, when faced with an empty file and no ideas, something always comes up.

Even now, I know what I would have written this week if I did not write this.

However, recent events have inspired me to bring this story out again.

This is Breast Cancer Awareness month.

In the past year two of my dearest friends – Sandra and Rachel – were diagnosed with breast cancer.  They went through treatments which were both physically and psychologically draining. Today, both are breast cancer survivors – or as Sandra’s sister, Lynne,  put it, “breast cancer thrivers.”

So now, more than ever, I have a feeling for the trauma associated with the disease and the toughness of those who make it through.

Sandra and Rachel are like my Aunt Roscoe.

Now I never knew Aunt Roscoe. (I am not even sure that she was an aunt – my family tends to use “aunt” and “uncle” instead of “cousin” when talking about older relatives. Although it makes us closer by title than by blood, calling them such makes family ties tighter than they actually are.)

Aunt Roscoe lived with Uncle Leon and Aunt Geraldine – more cousins.

And Aunt Roscoe was a breast cancer survivor.

It was a long time ago – late 1940s or early 1950s, dates get fuzzy – before radiation or chemo or all that. Back then, when you had breast cancer you either died or got it cut off. Roscoe went the cut off route. Radical mastectomy. Which left her breastless on one side (no one can remember which side, not that it matters).

These days a woman who has had this operation has a number of reconstruction and prosthesis options, but back then it wasn’t so. So Aunt Roscoe made herself a replacement, a “falsie,” padded in the shape of the real thing.

You see, Aunt Roscoe was a seamstress. A good one. Much in demand. And as soon after the operation as she could, Aunt Roscoe returned to sewing. It was therapy as well as income.

Almost immediately Aunt Roscoe found that her “falsie” was an excellent place to stick pins when there were too many for her to hold in her mouth, which is where seamstresses hold extra pins, in case you didn’t know.

Always with her, always within easy reach, her falsie was a novel and convenient pincushion.

However, the true value of this innovation did not come clear until a year or so later, well after its use became second nature to the user.

One day Aunt Roscoe was hard at work pinning a pattern when there came a knock on the door. Pins in her mouth she answered it and found a salesman, sample case in hand, ready to show her something that he knew she could not live without.

He began making his pitch.

She could not tell him “no” because of the pins in her mouth.

So while he talked, she absentmindedly began taking the pins, one by one, from between her lips and sticking them in the pincushion.

Yep, that pincushion.

Which the salesman thought was real.

(Work on it. Visuals are important.)

With each pin moving from mouth to cushion, mouth to cushion, mouth to cushion, the salesman’s concentration slipped. He kept losing his place in the spiel. He began stammering. And sweating.

Meanwhile Aunt Roscoe, unaware of what she was doing and the effect it was having on the salesman, continued to take pins from her mouth and poke them firmly into “it.”

Finally, after the fourth or fifth pin, the salesman gave up.

“Please lady,” he said. “You can stop. I’m leaving. If you are tough enough to do that, there is no way I can sell you anything.”

And he left.

And apparently he told other folks in his profession.

For according to family lore, that salesman was the last salesman ever to darken her door.

Aunt Roscoe lived to a ripe old age and died; not from the cancer – they got that – but from one of the other things that gets us all in the end.

But were she alive today, I figure she would be mighty proud of Sandra and Rachel, and all the women who are fighting the disease she fought. And given the nature of our family, I bet  she’d have pinned to her “cushion” a badge reading “Save the ta-tas” – and it would be pink.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University.  He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

 

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