“It’s malignant.” Those 2 words changed my life forever. I couldn’t really say “why me?”; it was more like, haven’t I been through enough? Ten major surgeries, almost dying twice, victim of a crime, divorce, loss of both parents in their 60’s within 6 months of each other, and then cancer. And yet…the gifts I have been given throughout have been so wonderful, so appreciated, so cherished…that if this was the price to pay, then so be it.
For over 30 years I was a professional actress, singer, and dancer, and was lucky enough to have performed in 2 Broadway shows, a slew of National Tours, and a ton of regional theatre. It was the life I loved more than anything. My last professional show was in 2002. Since that time, for some reason, I found it increasingly difficult to get hired. Maybe it was my age, my look…who knows. Theatre is a fickle business. So, I started to feel that at the age of 54, I should probably take a job. A full-time, regular job. Oh, the horror!!! At least from my actors’ perspective. I had worked for all those years as a temp in offices between shows. I was always the “strange secretary” who always sang and made people laugh.
So, in 2008, I bit the bullet and accepted a job at GE in Stamford, CT. It did feel good to have a steady and reliable income, and health coverage, and I turned in my union card so I could pursue some community theatre. I started the job in September of 2008, the week before the markets crashed. Who says I don’t have a sense of humor?
As 2009 rolled around, I was fairly happy and looking forward to a year filled with fun and theatre and good friends. As time went on, I realized I had not had a mammogram in about 3 years, as I had no health coverage due to my lack of union work. So, in late October of 2009, I scheduled a mammo at Stamford Hospital, which was not my usual place, but very close to work. On the day of the mammo, the technician saw something, actually 2 somethings, she didn’t like, and scheduled me for an immediate ultrasound.
The ultrasound led to 2 needle biopsies about a week later. One was just a simple needle biopsy, but the other was a core needle biopsy, done with MRI guidance and dye. Although I was numb and felt nothing but pressure, laying on my stomach with my boobs hanging down in the MRI, it sounded like some Con Edison guys were down there attempting to dig a hole to put in new electric cables. Lovely.
Long story short, on November 30, 2009, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer. After 1 night of crying, 1 panic attack, and 1 nightmare, I decided I was not going to let this get me. I was going to fight it with my usual sense of humor, and find the funny. And oh boy…did I find the funny.
The wire needle localization (20 minutes spent in a mammogram machine) and the surgery was really not fun, but again, I made the best of the situation. As the nurses wheeled me back to the pre-op room, with the wire now sticking out of my breast at an odd angle, I announced to all within earshot that I was getting radio free Europe through the wire. Following the 4 injections of radioactive dye into my breast (also tremendously NOT fun) I was walked into the operating room where I proceeded to try to find a song to sing to the operating room staff as I always did before any surgery. Considering the area to be operated on, I launched into my best version of “Tits and Ass” from A Chorus Line. The nurses fell out laughing, and my surgeon said, “quick…put her under already!” Of course, she was laughing too.
I had been told that the radioactive dye that went into my breast beforehand to find my sentinel nodes would turn my pee a bright blue. So, after surgery, the first time I got up to use the bathroom, I let out a scream of …. can I call it delight? “I’m peeing the Caribbean”, I said out loud to my sister in the hospital room. And, of course, I had to call her in to see the gorgeous Caribbean turquoise blue of my urine!
After weeks of recovery, including 2 bouts with cellulitis, it was determined by an Oncotype DX test that I would need chemo. I was not happy about it, but made the best of it that I could. I thought it was hysterically funny when my hair started falling out, and having been an actress most of my life, was quite comfortable wearing wigs. I ended up having a series of 2 haircuts before I actually shaved my head bald. Everyone was trying to make me feel better about the hair loss, but I just kept laughing at how funny it was. And besides, I had a very cute bald head! And I did have one really hysterical moment at Starbucks where, after exclaiming to a friend “You’re going to make me tear my hair out!”, I tore off my wig and freaked everyone out. THAT was the best!!!
The hours spent in that chemo room were at once terrifying, inspirational, boring as hell, and downright silly. Despite the constant dehydration and subsequent days of re-hydration, the off the charts flu-like feeling, the bone pain, the metallic sandpaper and Lysol taste in my mouth, the nausea and non-stop diarrhea, I will NEVER forget some of the people I met there. Especially my buddy, Bernie. We passed the time making up ridiculous killing cancer songs, and then sang them at the top of our lungs. We especially liked the music from the 40’s, so we sang, “Boogie Woogie Chemo Boy”, “All the Things You Barf”, and to the nurses “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love”. They loved that one!
I also, of course, went on to radiation but in a different building and location. My doctor, and the techies there were also simply the best. I made them laugh with new songs about radiation, and they made me lie still and stop laughing when the time came to be zapped. Since that was a very hot summer, I did sweat a lot, which made me burn a lot. My skin turned bright red, and two areas (my lymph node scar and under the affected breast) kind of split open and made life rather miserable for a few weeks. But, I kept telling people, “oh yeah, I actually glow in the dark, now!”
Cancer definitely taught me a ton of life lessons…don’t sweat the small stuff, life is too short to worry about what happened yesterday, and never take feeling good for granted. Another one of those is that you don’t always have to look good; in fact, I frankly didn’t give a hoot WHAT I looked like on those re-hydration and treatment days. I was a bald goofball for over 5 months, and I loved being able to make my buddies in that treatment room laugh.
I am now a grateful 9-year survivor. Next July 9th of 2020, I will attain my 10-year cancerversary…I will be a 10-year breast cancer survivor. THAT will be a BIG celebration for a BIG milestone. I am happy and feeling good again, but not one day goes by now when I don’t wonder who is in that room.
I wish I had the time to go back and sing for them. And make them laugh. To show them it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom…that you CAN have fun and even find joy while going through that journey.
There’s a line from the old Mary Tyler Moore show, when Chuckles the Clown has died. The priest recites his favorite line…”a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”. I can think of nothing better. And they DO say that laughter IS the best medicine. So, in keeping with Chuckles’ life theory…I had a little chemo, a little radiation, and a little laughter on the side.
Chris Matthews is an actress, singer, and dancer who performs under the name Chris Jamison. During her 30 years in professional show business, she was lucky enough to have performed in 2 Broadway shows…Annie and Fiddler On The Roof. She is also a published poet, writer, and songwriter, and loves being surrounded by nature. She is a fiercely loyal friend, loves her family, and can often be found attending theatre wherever she can find it. Next year in 2020, Chris plans to retire from corporate America where she has been for the last 15 years, and return to the theatre world she loves so much. Acting and singing are her passions in life, and making people laugh from the stage is truly her life’s calling.