“It wasn’t about the hair at the time, it’s the reality that the world is going to know.”
“I never wore a wig. It feels like you are a baby. You know it will come back but this is what cancer is. Cancer was cold.”
At sixty-three, Joanna has been caring for people through her hands as a private nurse and then as massage therapist for breast cancer patients for 35 years. “I have always felt that my core is in my hands,” and we both know this as truth because she speaks of touching others as a humbling privilege. Perhaps it is the joy of her work that brings about her energy, but her silver curls undoubtedly have something to do with her glow. “I started to gray when I was eighteen years old. I didn’t mind it. In fact my dad had a similar shade; he was called “The Silver Fox.”
After a car accident, resulting in eleven leg operations, a thick stripe of silver paved itself from her hairline to the base of her ear; I called it my ‘Fright White.’ Alterations in hormone levels can lead to a decrease in the production of melanin cells responsible for pigmentation, and although unproven, some argue that stress can catalyze graying and Joanna’s Fright White. Each strand on our heads is anchored in a follicle, housing trace amounts of hydrogen peroxide. With each growth cycle, the enzyme catalase breaks down the peroxide, but with each cycle, we produce less and less of this enzyme. During periods of stress, catalase production may become inhibited, allowing for the buildup of peroxide in the follicles. A team of scientists commented, “our hair bleaches itself from the inside out.” Call it what you may, but the hair atop Joanna’s head is like a halo. To name it as anything less than silver would muffle its light, it is alive, drawing youthfulness to her face.
The car accident was the first of two serious collisions that fueled her passion to work in rehabilitation. Joanna’s accidents have shaped her perspective to inhabit each day as blessed space in time. Listening, I am reminded of a quote: “Know impermanence and show up even when you don’t know what is going to happen.” This is Joanna, she does not deny fear or dwell, she takes the unknown and lives within it to her fullest. “Life, is a game we are a part of, yet we never know what is happening” she says, emanating an empowering ease and surrender.
In April of 2012, on the anniversary of her mother’s burial, Joanna was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I didn’t realize that the work I had been doing was preparing me for my own experience.” Her work with breast cancer patients began when a client asked if she would massage his wife who was undergoing chemotherapy. Joanna began to see her regularly after infusions to stimulate circulation. Massage therapy (MT) is focused on the manipulation of soft tissue and dates back as far as 2000 B.C. It was considered a medical practice, but overtime has migrated outside of the scientific realm. Within the past fifteen years however, research funded by The National Institutes of Health and the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy has demonstrated MT’s capacity to improve circulation and reduce pain.
Joanna has worked with over thirty women. She has witnessed the wrath of chemo in them. “I called one of my girls and said ‘I guess I’m next.’ She came right over.” It was surreal. A fog of disbelief settled. “But then I met my doctor and saw my mother’s eyes. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.”
Before her first treatment her hairdresser shaved her head. She wanted a say, control amidst the inescapable weakness that would come to suffocate many of her days. She warned her goddaughter, “One yucky thing is going to happen,” only to be reassured by a six-year old, “You’ll be beautiful anyway.” She says, “It wasn’t about the hair at the time, it’s the reality that the world is going to know.” This was the first manifestation of her reality. “I never wore a wig. It feels like you are a baby, but you know it will come back. This is what cancer is. Cancer was cold.”
Joanna has had her fair share of skeptical clients. Clients wonder how she can possibly understand the cracking their joints, the trauma housed in the folds and those hard to reach places? How can the patients at The Cancer Center Treatment and Wellness Center at Northern Westchester Hospital trust the advice of a stranger who come to sit in waiting rooms each week with her therapy dog? When they discover she has been in their position, even in that waiting room, an immediate safety is created. She has found that strangers will consistently surprise you. One day, while waiting in the Starbucks line, the woman behind her said, “I’ll get that.” Staring blankly in response, the stranger clarified, “I’ve been where you are.” Joanna explains that she reached a point during chemo when she had to surrender to faith, to trust others, even strangers. But even during chemo, Joanna maintained herself, massaging throughout the four months of her chemotherapy. Even when neuropathy plagued her hands, she found alternative ways to massage by using the side of her hand and the flat of her knuckles. She continued to meditate through massage, maintaining her core even when it had been robbed of her.
Today, Joanna has represented The Cancer Center Treatment and Wellness Center at Northern Westchester Hospital, in a commercial and urged the promotion of the institution by Inside Chappaqua in, “The Power of C – More Than A Vitamin at the Center.” She continues to be a support and inspiration to anyone she touches and anyone who is blessed to hear her story. Thank you Joanna for sharing your strength Joanna.