The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 20, 2013

The power of pink

A breast cancer survivor story

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— This is Carolyn DiLorenzo after cancer: An official court reporter. A dancer. Daughter, mother, wife. Survivor.

Symbolism runs through Carolyn’s life like light through a prism, breaking into beams of meaningful brilliance. Colors themselves have meaning. Halloween, the day she was first diagnosed, has meaning. Cancer has meaning.

She is wearing a pink scarf to tell her story, her long, thick brunette hair flowing over it, curling past her shoulders. She carries a pink bag of mementos, momentary curses well-aged into treasures — like the wig she wore that her brother bought for her.

She remembers denying that she would lose her hair, believing that if she willed it to stay, it would. Then Christmas Day 2000, after the chemotherapy and radiation and just as her oncologist had warned, her locks let go, carpeting the inside of her bathtub.

She hadn’t wanted anyone to see her that way, especially her granddaughter, Ashley. So she wrapped her few remaining stubborn strands up in a navy bandana, one of four in a pack. When her family arrived, they wore the balance of the bandanas in her honor.

Pink — it was always Carolyn’s favorite color, long before the reports of cancer on her mother’s side of the family made sense, before, as a small child, she caught sight of her grandmother undressing, one breast missing and a stark scar in its place. “She was around 50. I don’t know what kind of treatment she had, but I know that it worked. She was nearly 88 when she died,” Carolyn recalls.

As with so many stories of cancer, there was a family history as far back as she could trace.

Also inside the bag is a picture of her with her younger brother, Robert Lucas.

Robert was 42 when diagnosed with esophageal cancer shortly after Carolyn’s breast cancer was discovered at her age of 45. The two would have treatments scheduled back-to-back; she took to leaving him notes of encouragement with the radiation tech that read, “I love you.”

Six months after his diagnosis, Carolyn attended her brother’s funeral. It was September 2001 and she was still receiving treatment when the awful blow came.

Before her brother got sick, she admits, she felt sorry for herself. His prognosis erupted within her a strange mixture of fortune and guilt.

“Then, I had to stop thinking about myself.”

Carolyn realized how unlikely her cancer was to be detected early. Even today, it is difficult for her to explain why she went for an exam, other than “I just knew.”

Her gynecologist listened carefully as she explained the reason for her off-schedule visit. Many women like Carolyn are born with nodular breast tissue, also called fibrocystic breasts, a generally benign condition that can make cancerous lumps more difficult to detect through self-examination.

For as long as she could remember, she had tracked a mass of fibrocystic tissue in her left breast, and while she couldn’t feel an actual lump, the mass had morphed somehow.

Erring on the side of caution, her gynecologist sent her for a surgical consult. The surgeon decided to perform a biopsy. When Carolyn stopped by the office for the report, she was called back to his office and told it was cancer. Hers was between stages 1 and 2.

“I am more than the sum of my parts,” she repeated to herself over and over, contemplating the inevitable surgery ahead of her. “Social perceptions and what’s really important in life play such a part,” she says of exploring her options. She chose the route of a lumpectomy.

Following sentinel node mapping to determine if her cancer had spread elsewhere, and in consideration of other factors such as her age, doctors told Carolyn she would still have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

Knowing what lay ahead, she withdrew into denial. “I decided I wasn’t going to have chemo. I was just going to forget all of this business. I felt so angry, so out of control.”

After a discussion with her surgeon, who reminded her she would spend her days looking figuratively over her shoulder, she relented.

“Cancer doesn’t care who you are or where you came from. You have it, and that’s that.”

Cancer became a destination from which she returned the wiser, a place where she learned to master life and to perfect the art of letting go.

For the last eight years, in addition to actively caring for those around her, quiet-natured Carolyn has practiced belly dancing under the instruction of an expert known simply as Alexandria. Through Alexandria, she also discovered her next adventure — and she has the outfit to prove it.

“I want to learn flamenco,” she reveals, having already purchased a dress at a regional workshop as inspiration. She is beginning her lessons in preparation for a performance in Spring 2014.

Carolyn’s other great pleasure is to take her mother, Dorothy Lucas, out on weekends, to have her hair done and to go to the store together. Dorothy, says Carolyn, is the true heroine, she who raised three children on her own, endured two having cancer at the same time and the loss of her beloved son.

“Mom has been a consistent support system for her children. She is the personification of The Golden Rule.”

The symbols — her grandmother and mother as pillars of strength; her brother, a partner and an angel; and that persistent color — the red of hardship tempered by the pure white presence of hope; these are what mean so much to her now.

When asked her perspective on life the quiet yet adventurous spirit quotes another of her heroines, Audrey Hepburn:

“I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day... and I believe in miracles.”

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com