We see and hear platitudes daily. They are inescapable. They dominate Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook. We overhear them in coffee shops or song lyrics. We may even say a few ourselves.
And there is nothing wrong with them. They may be clichés, but so what, right? Even if “Just be Yourself” sounds a bit trite, it does make us feel better.
But sometimes the “Go For Its” or “Grab the Brass Rings” or “Life is Too Shorts,” doesn’t ring genuine with us until something shifts. And sometimes, that thing that shifts perspective is cancer.
Heidi Kelly knows all about living a life without knowing exactly what direction she wanted to go in. And about “Sweating the Small Stuff.” Before cancer she was bartending while she tried to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She wasn’t interested in the 9-5 jobs in the past and she knew she wanted to be doing something creative. She was also concerned with minor health issues that had plagued her.
“Before cancer I was a pretty quiet person who was never willing to take a risk,” Heidi says. “I thought the most I had to worry about were a couple of scars from my eczema and dealing with allergy issues. I moved through life but I was a tad bit pessimistic.”
But then, at age 38, she was diagnosed with stage II Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. And even after a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction and a preventative regimen of Tamoxifen, the cancer returned in one of her scars. The second diagnosis resulted in more surgery, four rounds of chemotherapy and 35 days of radiation.
“Throughout the treatments I had ups and downs,” says Heidi. “I had to change medications twice because of painful side effects that we’re still trying to figure out. But there were definitely more ups than downs.”
Struggling through pain and trying to feel normal, Heidi turned her attention to her sewing machine. It became what she likes to call “her therapist.”
Sewing was something she had always wanted to do, and could do, but the machine itself had always been daunting. She had an eye for design and loved fashion, even majoring in fashion merchandising in school, but she never really pursued it further. After her diagnosis, that sewing machine became not only a therapist, but a catalyst as well.
“I had actually known how to sew a little bit, but was always afraid of sewing machines,” Heidi says. “My mom used to thread the bobbin for me. I finally got my own sewing machine after I got married, but it sat in a box for months before I finally got the courage to try it. A couple of tries later, I finally got it. I started sewing little things here and there, especially t-shirt blankets. I made some gifts for people and started looking on the internet for ideas, and I saw handbags! I was excited about having a bag that no one else did. At first I started with other people's patterns, but about the time that I was diagnosed was when I was just starting to create my own patterns.”
From there, her spirit blossomed and she wound up pursuing a dream she didn’t even know she had. Over time, the idea of making handbags became a passion and when people started complimenting her designs and her husband gave her a nudge, she decided to try her hand at her own business.
But life wasn’t perfect. She was, and still is, in constant pain. She wondered if she would ever feel like herself again or even feel normal.
“Not a day goes by that I am not uncomfortable or in down right pain” says Heidi. “Radiation really screwed up my shoulder. I have been through physical therapy and lots of pain meds. And, I’m not sure if it will ever be right again. I'm also looking at another surgery because the radiation caused that implant to shrink. I also don't look in the mirror unless I have all my clothes on anymore.”
Pain management and her altered body are still part of her daily battle. There are days when she feels down and discouraged, but these days she counters that with what she’s been able to do and accomplish. She focuses on the positive changes cancer gave her, rather than the negative ones.
“Sometimes I don't feel like myself, and I have to come to terms with understanding that I am now different and can't go back.” Heidi says. “But, creating this amazing business has been one of my biggest successes, as is being able to talk to others who have cancer and even help them. I realize anyone can die tomorrow, so live life now. That’s my new motto.”
She is living her life. Fully and unabashedly. She speaks out about what happened to her, she participates in support groups, and she continues to focus on growing her handbag business and living life now.
“I don't put things off,” says Heidi, “and I am lucky to have a husband who feels the same. We aren't waiting until we are older to do things. When the opportunity presents itself we go for it!”
An avid reader and traveler, Heidi uses the confidence her business gives her and the encouragement overcoming illness has to take control of her life and speak up. She’s been to Italy and Las Vegas, and planning future trips to Florida and Alaska. And she’s now officially the Girl Boss/Designer of HKelly Designs.
The once quiet, pessimistic person has been replaced with a woman filled with optimism, who loves to work with fun and funky colors and prints and help women stand up and be noticed. She has learned, as another platitude says, to “Take the Good with the Bad.”
“Cancer helped me create the business, and it has encouraged my husband and I to travel more because we don't want to be 60 trying to do all the things we want to do now.” Heidi says.
She also credits her survivor sisters for helping her learn and grow and manage the everyday challenges that may come after cancer treatment.
“I originally thought I would do it all on my own, and I'm not a big fan of the touchy feely group thing. But since I’ve met other young survivors, I realize I am not alone and we are all there to help each other," says Heidi. "And we really can do anything we want and this goes for all people not just survivors. Don't wait for tomorrow. It might not come!”
Those are words of encouragement and advice we can all get behind. Platitude or not.
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Guest Post: Katharine Doughty
When I found a lump in my chest in early 2010, I was ten years into a series of 26 self-portraits with four 4 images to complete. A theme of reclaiming runs throughout the project: reclaiming of self-representation, of our personal and collective stories and the power of visual image. Be it ten years or ten minutes, the essential gift is the same: focused discovery and reflection via the arts allows us to be a witness to ourselves. To hear and respond creatively to our bodies with our bodies is to reclaim a role in the healing of our bodies.