By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Treatment for breast cancer can take a lot of courage, but it can also inspire creativity. Two women turned to their pens - and their laptops - to cope with the emotional and physical tests they endured through breast cancer treatment.
When Wendy Hunsaker, 48, of Houston was diagnosed with breast cancer abo
ut a year ago, it came completely "out of the blue." She had no family history of the disease and was otherwise healthy.
She was shocked by the news, and going through treatment felt "surreal," she says. She figured she could sit in the waiting room and stew while all this was going on, or she could distract herself by doing something creative.
She decided to dust off a screenplay for a romantic comedy she had started about 10 years earlier and work on it while she went through two lumpectomies and radiation treatments at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
"It was nice to focus on something creative and positive because so much of cancer treatment is out of your control," says Hunsaker, who is married and has a 21-year-old son.
While she waited for appointments before and after surgery, she wrote and edited the script about a young woman's attraction to the wrong kind of men. It's a time travel romance that begins in the Middle Ages and moves to the present, then back in time again. "It's about facing fear and finding love."
She listened to soundtracks (Crystal Castles, Sarah McLachlan, Taylor Swift) that she thought would work well with the screenplay if it ever becomes a movie. The music helped to "fuel my creativity and shut out the hospital noises. My imagination would go into that world. It was a lot more fun to think about Ally's struggles than mine, and it was easier to give her fortitude when she needed it than to think about me."
Hunsaker was often so lost in her work that the medical staff "would have to tap me on my shoulder because I wouldn't hear my name being called."
The screenplay is not finished, but when she rereads it, "I realize that the battles and emotionally pivotal scenes were crafted while sitting at MD Anderson. You can sense the grit of the fight. With two surgeries, pre-op and post-op appointments, and daily radiation for six weeks, I logged over 60 hours in waiting rooms while I wrote.
"I'm so thankful to be through that season, but it did add an edge to the creative process," says Hunsaker, author of SENSEational Parties: How to Throw a Sensational Party by Captivating the Five Senses.
She says about her treatment, "I pretty much had a warrior mentality through the whole thing. There were a few times I had my friends pray like crazy when I hit a rough patch. My husband and son were my rock and cheerleaders - complete champions."
Breast cancer "kind of marches in and shakes a fist at you when you least" expect it, she says.
On the day of her last radiation treatment, Hunsaker invited her friends to meet her at the hospital, then come back to her house for a black-tie dinner party. The invitation said, "Wendy is trading in her hospital gown for an evening gown."
Her friends arrived at the hospital in evening attire, then celebrated with her. "It was a festive finish" to a difficult journey, she says.
Another woman's story:
Tania Katan, 41, of Phoenix took up her pen to help deal with the pain both times that she faced breast cancer.
When she was 21 and studying theater at Arizona State University, Katan was diagnosed with advanced (stage 3) breast cancer. "I was a medical anomaly at the time. I was freaked out about the diagnosis. This was 1992 when young women were not getting breast cancer. People weren't talking about breast cancer. There wasn't the kind of awareness there is today," she says.
Katan had a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy. Throughout treatment, she continued to go to college even "when I was losing my hair and losing a little bit of hope."
At the time, she was taking a playwriting class so she decided to write a humorous play about her breast cancer experience to tell the story of "this medical labyrinth with a sense of humor." It was produced at Arizona State, then at the University of Connecticut.
She was "super healthy" for 10 years, then found a lump in her other breast. That's when "medicine caught up with my body," she says, and her doctors decided that based on her Eastern European Jewish heritage, she might have a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which would increase her risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. They were right. She tested positive.
Katan elected to have another mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. This time, she decided to chronicle her experiences in a memoir.
She brought a journal to the chemotherapy treatments and took notes, including the time she fainted when a phlebotomist had a hard time drawing blood. "It was like she was conducting an archaeological dig in my veins. Yeah, you could say that was painful."
If she was at a medical appointment without her journal, she would jot her thoughts down on pamphlets or other scraps of paper. One time while waiting for a doctor, she had a pen but no paper, so she grabbed some of the white roll of paper on the examining table and wrote her thoughts down on that, tore it off and rolled out some more paper, she says.
The writing was "extraordinarily therapeutic," she says. "This memoir was a story I needed to tell." In 2006, My One Night Stand With Cancer was published.
When Katan was 36, she had surgery to remove her ovaries because she was at such a high risk of ovarian cancer. She's cancer-free as far as she knows and enjoying her life.
"I have a bit of a fighter in me," says Katan, who is curator of performance at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. With breast cancer. "I have had moments of complete despair, but those moments pale in comparison to my overwhelming optimism."
Excerpt from My One-Night Stand With Cancer by Tania Katan:
"How do you tell your father that you have breast cancer, again? Are there any singing telegrams for this kind of news? Singing mammograms? Singing is probably not such a good idea. How about tap-dancing? Maybe I don't have to tell him, not until I go bald and he starts asking questions."