Survivor: Lillie Shockney offers breast cancer patients understanding and humor: She knows firsthand what they are going through.


October 03, 1999|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,sun staff

Early Monday morning, Lillie Shockney bustles around the outpatient clinic of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, signing up colleagues to enter the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure for Breast Cancer.

It's the start of a typical 18-hour day for the center's 45-year-old director of education and outreach, a day of juggling media interviews and departmental matters, of hearing about new types of breast prostheses, of agreeing to give lectures that will pour money into breast cancer support groups, of comforting an elderly woman before and after her mastectomy.

But first, before she has time to clear her voice mail, Shockney will meet a family that has flown to Baltimore from Texas. They are in a state of shock, the shock that comes from discovering your healthy 37-year-old wife -- or your healthy 37-year-old daughter -- has advanced breast cancer.

The group awaits Shockney at the center's reception desk. The patient, her husband, parents and best friend all wear the dazed, no-sleep look of refugees who just lost their world to a flash flood and don't know what to do next. They gaze hopefully at Shockney, a small, sturdy, ginger-haired woman, their tired eyes begging her to tell them this is all a big mistake.

Instead, Shockney says they have come to the best possible place for answers. She tells them a loving family support system is crucial to surviving this disease.

She is here to remind the newly diagnosed that their glass is far from empty. As a nurse and patient advocate, Shockney knows what people need to fortify themselves as they prepare to meet the challenges of this disease. As a breast cancer survivor, she knows what it means to discuss your worst nightmare with a doctor you may have never met.

She's adept at finding humor in surreal situations, the ironic, eye-opening humor of been-there survivors.

"You could say that I live and breathe breast cancer," Lillie Shockney says.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Shockney feels like Santa Claus on the day after Thanksgiving. There's so much to do: the Race for the Cure -- she and her elves have gathered 900 Hopkins participants -- out-of-town speaking engagements, the first Breast Fest fund-raiser in Canton, a talk about surviving breast cancer with humor at A Woman's Journey, the annual Hopkins-sponsored health symposium on Oct 23.

And there's also her birthday: Shockney is thrilled to be turning 46.

"Last week, a woman said to me, 'I can't imagine getting up each morning, looking down and seeing that my breast is gone.'

"I told her, 'I don't. I get up each morning and see the cancer's gone.' "

Shockney calls herself "a poster child for mammography." Seven years ago, a mammogram revealed a tumor in her left breast that proved to be cancerous. When she read the pathology report on her computer at Hopkins -- she pulled up the results before her physician had a chance to tell her -- she fell right into the abyss of the newly diagnosed: Would she live? Would she lose her breast? What about her sexual desirability? The slightest ache or pain became a potential death threat.

A year after her first mastectomy, Shockney underwent a lumpectomy on her right breast for a benign tumor. Ten months later, when another mammogram revealed precancerous growths, she opted for a second mastectomy.

This time, however, things were different. She had gained hope and confidence from the abundant love of family and friends. And she possessed the sense of humor that could help keep demons at bay. A serious, bookwormish child who grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore, Shockney says she discovered the potential of laughter in a conversation with her then-11-year-old daughter about her first mastectomy.

"Laura said, 'Will the doctor let you bring your breast home to keep, because, after all, it isn't his, it's yours,' " Shockney chuckles. "She said, 'You can put it downstairs on the mantel in Daddy's pickle jar, and when you're sad, you can go down and look at it.' "

"I told her 'I think I'd feel better if I could leave it at the hospital. Maybe the doctors could do research on it which would prevent someone else's mommy from having to have the same surgery.'

"Laura accepted that. Then she asked, 'Will the doctor take your right breast and move it to the middle?' I said, 'Why do you think he'd do that?' She said, 'Because if he doesn't, Mommy, you're going to lean when you walk.' I was a 44-D. I said, 'I'm going to wear a breast prosthesis.' And I showed her what that looked like and told her a mastectomy bra would hold it in place because it had a pocket in it.

"She said, 'I think having a bra with a pocket in it is a very clever thing. You always worry when you go to the ATM machine that somebody is going to steal your money, you could put it in your pocket and nobody could get it.'

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