Tiffany Corbett's Story
"It’s not a Bad Hair Day … It’s a No Hair Day!"
It was February of 1988 when I had my first mammogram, recommended just before turning 40. My gynecologist told me that a suspicious area was found in my right breast; he wanted it biopsied. Two radiologists had a difficult time localizing the suspicious area for a needle biopsy; their response was “fatty tissue”. Four years went by with routine mammograms, showing no change in this suspicious area.
In the spring of 1992, I decided to have a breast reduction. I was 44, married a daughter, going into 9th grade, and a son beginning 2nd grade. Not quite two weeks after surgery, my plastic surgeon informed me … “I have good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it. The Pathology Department at Overlook Hospital found that you had cancer in your right breast. If you were my wife, I would see a surgeon and have your lymph nodes removed, have chemotherapy and radiation, and you will live a long life.”
When I told my daughter “I have breast cancer” her response was “Mom, you are going to be just fine! You are a survivor!” I called a friend who just had breast cancer; she insisted I read Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. The next morning, I began reading with a highlighter in hand. I learned a whole new vocabulary to use with the many physicians I would encounter. Ask anyone who has been faced with taking action after diagnosis – you learn quickly to empower yourself with the knowledge you need to be your own advocate … to help your doctor save your life.
My lymph nodes were removed the opening day of school, I returned to teach the following Monday, began a six-month chemotherapy treatment program, radiation, attended a support group, and here I was, fifteen years later, cancer-free and hoping to remain that way!
During routine blood work, I was diagnosed in September 2008 with metastatic breast cancer to my bones and lymph nodes. I began aggressive chemotherapy in mid-October, and was informed by my oncologist that my hair would thin out. After my second chemotherapy, I began to lose clumps of hair – my beautiful hair. It was revolting. Every morning, I thought I would just regurgitate. I am not a vain person whatsoever, but my hair was part of my identity, so I thought - this was the most difficult loss for me as a woman. By Thanksgiving, I looked like Dagwood, with stringy strands of hair.
So, I decided to get my hair buzzed early in December. I looked like my baby pictures. Maybe even Yul Brynner or Telly Savalas. I drove to school, took my wig off, put on a cashmere hat, and decided to go “au natural” in school.
First, our principal’s secretary told me that I had a cute shaped head. Passed Test #1.
I put my hat on to walk down the hall to visit another favorite secretary. When she saw me, she said I not only had a beautifully shaped head but that I didn’t have a wrinkle and it was obvious that I had never had a face lift … at 60 years old, that comment made me laugh! Passed Test #2.
Off to my class. I teach Sociology and my students were in awe of my head shape – male teachers, coaches and students who shaved their heads wanted to knock heads, “oh, you look so cute, Mrs. Corbett”. They accepted me with or without hat or wig which made me feel so much better. Passed Test #3.
The best is one young man who repeatedly tells me that I am beautiful whether I have hair or not. I rarely wore my wig now – only to church and formal type functions. I put on lots of makeup and big earrings and off I go with my cashmere cap, until I get to school or wherever and take it off.
The day we returned from the Holiday Recess, one of my Science colleagues came by to see how I was. She was hoarse, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. I said, “Laurie, you need to be home in bed”. She said, “if you can come to school on chemo, then I can come to school with this.”
Two months have gone by and my hair had begun to grow in. My students wonder why it is now white when it was brown this past fall. I explain “chemicals”; they think it is “from the chemotherapy”. I explain, “no, chemicals from the bottle that the hairdresser uses”. Quite recently, the owner of XOMA, the hair salon I use taught me how to use “product” – a wax to work out the cow-licks in my hair. Quite recently, the owner of XOMA, the hair salon I use taught me how to use “product” – a wax to work out the colics in my hair. And he had his makeup artist teach me how to do my brows. $70.00 later, I had a new eyebrow kit. Who said there is a recession? So on Saturday evening, off Jim and I went to dinner. I walked into Canoe Brook with my signature “St. John” dress and one of my friends thought I looked fantastic – like a model – some model with my legs and hips. But with platinum white hair, makeup and my big signature “Tiffany and Co.” earrings, I felt like a million dollars. Passed Test #4.
The next morning, I went to church, for the first time “au natural”. I took my cap off after I entered and was approached by one 40-something woman who again thought I looked like a model, and resembled Sinead O’Connor. Wish I could sing like her. Passed Test #5.
I am far from a model, but if I can be a “role model” to my children, my students, my colleagues, my peers, then I have accomplished what my late mother taught me – “It is better to give than to receive”.
After my original diagnosis in 1992, I did what I do best. I empowered myself to educate others: my family, my friends, my colleagues at Plainfield High School where I have taught for 40 years, and my students who have become involved in “Teens Tie A Ribbon for a Cure”. I have spoken to community groups, like the Junior League of Summit and Beta Sigma Phi. In 1999, Deb Belfatto, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, North Jersey Affiliate, asked me if I would be willing to host an information table at my church in Westfield. Through the Ladies Philoptochos Society of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, I provided educational literature during each Sunday’s Fellowship Hour in October and sold pink pins and ribbons for the “Tie A Ribbon for the Cure” campaign. Last but not least, I have been coordinating Canoe Brook Country Club’s annual Rally for the Cure sanctioned by the LPGA since 1999. Their mission is to educate women about the steps that can and need to be taken to combat this life-threatening disease. From 1997 to 2008, we have raised $172,156.50 for Komen, nationally and locally.
Now, when I hear women complain about their hair, or that they are having a bad hair day, I want to remind them of the important things in life … family, friends, living day to day. As one of my dear friends says, “when life throws you a lemon, make lemonade!”
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