A significant loss in the cancer community

On Christmas Eve, the cancer community lost a remarkable physician, researcher and caring human being, Dr. Jimmie Holland: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/04/obituaries/jimmie-holland-who-cared-for-the-cancer-patients-mind-dies-at-89.html?emc=edit_th_20180107&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038

I met Jimmie (and her husband, James) a few years ago through my participation in the American Association for Cancer Research Scientist-Survivor Program. She was a kind and compassionate woman who was one of the first to notice in the 1970s that oncologists and cancer researchers were striving to understand the characteristics of the disease itself but not the emotional strain that a cancer diagnosis brings.  These days, the notion that patients would be treated without considering their psychological condition–namely, their fears, anxieties and sense of extreme loss–is unfathomable. We have people like Jimmie to thank for the shift.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 1993, I truly couldn’t believe the emotional rollercoaster that I found myself riding. While all mortal beings know, theoretically, that our time on this earth will come to an end, the thought comes barreling home when diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. Especially at 29.

Those emotions still dwell in my gut, and they arise whenever I find myself reeling back into a cancer state of mind.

Extreme loneliness, the sense that I, alone, had been thrown into a horrifying experience.

Fear of the new reality, physically and psychologically, as I began an arduous treatment regimen.

Uncertainty about the future–what kind of life lay ahead, and if briefer than anticipated, how I might find peace and fulfillment in the time remaining.

Jimmie Holland understood those feelings and devoted her career to giving them voice. She was in all ways an advocate for patients and a beacon of honesty for physicians who needed to hear that treating cancer requires acknowledging the human component.




My 2nd Act hits Birmingham

Check out local television coverage of My 2nd Act, a stage show about cancer survivorship that hit the stage in Birmingham this past Sunday.


The show offered an emotional mix of voices and I bonded with some remarkable women, from ages 14 to 72. A televised program featuring the show and the backstories of local survivors will be hitting the air in the months to come. Stay tuned for more!

My 2nd Act

On November 6, I and 9 other female cancer survivors–7 of us from Birmingham–will be presenting our stories of survival in a stage show called My 2nd Act (M2A). Cancer survivors from other parts of the country, from Nashville to Chicago to Raleigh, have also reached audiences through M2A to reveal the triumphs and struggles that follow a diagnosis of breast, ovarian, brain, colon, or any other type of cancer that knocks a survivor down before she figures out how to get back up again and create a new, albeit revised, life for herself.

One particularly cool feature of our stage show is that it’s being taped for a television documentary. More details to come!

I invite anyone who is interested in supporting the Women Survivors Alliance, the organization that benefits from ticket sales and other charitable donations, to join us on the 6th of November!


The Alabama Project at Loyola

Gradually, I’m settling back into Alabama time and writing about the amazing experiences I had this summer in Poland and back in Illinois. One highlight was the trip to the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center at Loyola University’s Medical Center to deliver some of The Alabama Project photos and to present background on the project during a reception there. The pictures that follow taken by my friend, Tanya, provide a glimpse at the exhibit and speaking engagement.



Me pictured with the women at Loyola who brought The Alabama Project to cancer survivors in Chicago.



An announcement of the photo exhibit alongside David’s picture of Debbie Tabb and her family. Attendees were also provided with copies of Cancer Today containing stories about some of the Alabama women.


A look at the lobby where The Alabama Project photos were displayed.


My presentation about the amazing stories behind David’s images.


Pictured alongside my family, including Mom (seated), my Auntie Rose, Uncle Tom, and Dad (left to right, standing).


Smiling alongside my gal pals, Tanya (who transported us to Chicago and played photographer) and Suzanne (van co-driver who accompanied me and the pics all the way from Birmingham).



Mom, Dad, and me enjoying a happy moment at Loyola–much happier than Mom’s emergency hospital visit that took us there earlier this year.


Packaging illness

The following story in The New York Times laments the delay in the U.S. of presenting images of diseased lungs, oral cancer, and other effects of smoking on cigarette packs: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/03/opinion/let-smokers-see-the-warning-they-need.html?emc=edit_th_20160603&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

According to the author, the FDA’s release of these images and mandate that the images be displayed on tobacco products to offer a frank warning to consumers was met with legislation on the part of the tobacco industry. As with many battles caught up in the legal system, the industry has bought itself a good amount of time. Five years, at least.

As I read Cohen’s op-ed, I thought back to the packaging I saw on cigarettes when I visited Nepal in 2011. Images like those described by Cohen were already displayed on tobacco products there, an observation I made while standing in line at one of many small shops on the streets of Kathmandu.

Inside a cancer hospital in the ancient city of Bhaktupar, I noticed a similar trend. Lining the walls of the facility, where families venture with loved ones addressing cancer to seek the level of care they are able to afford (see my post on “Opening a Window on Cancer,” an article that I wrote about cancer care in Nepal), were informative posters presenting details about cancer causes, symptoms, and treatments. I was surprised by the graphic images shown on these documents, especially given the hesitancy in Nepalese culture to speak about cancer.

Cohen claims that more graphic images on tobacco packages have been shown to deter smoking among consumers, including among children who might think twice about starting if they are faced with the ugliness of tobacco’s physical and aesthetic effects. I have to wonder, though, how big a difference the images will make in individual behaviors.

While I agree with Cohen that the tobacco industry is getting away with murder–my words, not hers–I’m often amazed by the lack of effect quite graphic images have on the choices we Americans make. In fact, in some instances, as in widespread coverage of gun violence, the more graphic the image, the more desensitized we seem to become.

Capturing a Movement

The New York Times reported today that photographer Bob Adelman has died:

I met Mr. Adelman in 2013, when he came to UAB to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. It was his photos of the movement–peaceful protestors being held back with fire hoses and attacked by dogs, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the masses, the Children’s March–that became emblematic of the era. He was a kind and gentle man and could tell a heck of a story about individuals like King (whom he called “Doc”) that most of us know only through history books.

Road Trip

Earlier this week, I gave a presentation for Breast Cancer Awareness Month at Drake Community and Technical College in Huntsville. I asked Edwina when I first received the invitation if she’d like to go along. She replied with a resounding “Yes!”

I decided to mix things up a bit during my talk by focusing on what breast cancer “awareness” might mean in 2015. At the beginning of the presentation I asked the audience how many of them were aware of breast cancer–what it is and some of the messages about the disease that had been communicated through the years–and hands shot up across the room. Since we’re pretty aware, I asked, what should we be talking about each October? What followed was an examination of the nuances of the disease and the many unknowns that persist.

The presentation went great. At the end, the crowd had even convinced Edwina to say a few words about her experiences with breast cancer and our evolving friendship.

Following questions, Denise Gaymon, the counsellor who had invited me to speak, thanked me on behalf of the college. She handed me a gift bag filled with Drake merchandise and also gave one to Edwina.

“We also want to thank Miss Edwina for taking the time to come along with Dr. Ryan to share her story,” Denise said as she handed the bag to Edwina. Edwina was smiling from ear to ear.

As we loaded up the car to return to Birmingham, stuffing in the pink balloons that Edwina has snagged on the way out the door, Edwina shared that she’d seen the gift bags when we’d walked into the building where I was slated to speak.

“I seen them bags,” she told me. “And I kept askin’ myself, ‘Why are there two gift bags? I bet one’s for Miss Rayan, but who’s that other one for?’ I couldn’t stop thinkin’ about that the whole time you talkin.”

Sure enough, the second bag was for Edwina. She couldn’t have been happier.

All the way to and from Huntsville, Edwina and I caught up on what we’ve been up to. It was wonderful to see her again. I’ve missed her big smile and perspective on the world.

Plus, we got to sing along to Michael Jackson as we made our way 100 miles to Huntsville and back again. Edwina and I tapped our feet and raised our voices, remembering just about every beat and lyric.