Dignity and control in a little hospital closet

Posted: Sunday, October 25, 2009

In a little closet tucked in next to the oncology department at Central Peninsula Hospital, a woman living with the results of cancer treatment can find a little bit of loving care.

For a bare head, colorful hats and scarves and wigs. Ever wanted to try being a blonde or redhead? Under the circumstances, might as well make the best of it.

And for the piece of her taken away forever, small pieces of foam can help mitigate the deep sense of loss -- if only a little.

But it's a little bit that can do wonders for the sense of self.

"Cancer takes away a woman's choices," says Kathy Lopeman, the registered nurse who oversees the oncology department. "It's just a great indignity.

"But in this little closet, we can give some of it back, and she's in control when she's in this room."

Make no mistake: Cancer treatments try to save the life, but not without a brutal toll on the body and one's sense of self. For example, hair just falls out. That's why Lopeman and her staff strongly suggest patients just shave their heads instead of finding it in clumps on the pillow in the morning.

For many women who've undergone a mastectomy, the sense of loss is even greater. That's why Kenai resident Dee Dee Paris went to see Lopeman. Her mastectomy last Feb. 14 -- her 67th birthday -- devastated her.

"It's like any casualty coming out of war," Paris said. "At first you think you don't want to live. Then you do want to live. I was afraid I wasn't going to be a woman anymore."

Shortly after her surgery Paris went to the oncology department -- "bit the bullet," as she put it -- and tried one of the prostheses. Now she says any woman who's been through what she's been through should do the same.

"Most women don't like walking around not looking like a woman," Paris says. And, she laughs: "It keeps me balanced."

The best part -- at Central Peninsula Hospital all the prostheses, the hats and scarves, the quilts made especially for patients by Funny River Quilters -- it's all free. Donations pay for it all. A cancer patient need only come in and ask.

Lopeman remembered a patient who came in recently needing a special pair of prosthetic breasts for a special event. She wanted to attend in a strapless evening gown. The oncology staff found just the right set, and the woman looked fabulous.

"Now she has two sets," Lopeman said. "Her 'party' girls and her 'everyday' girls.

"It's all about how you feel about yourself. That's where we try to help."

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