Giving cancer a kick in the you-know-where
Breast cancer has met its match in Lara Handsfield.
Yes, it knocked her flat for a few days, those first horrible days when she lay curled up in a ball, sobbing as she Skyped with her husband who’d just flown to Denmark, not knowing what was to come.
But it wasn’t long before she had a plan. It took shape the night they gently delivered the news to their two sons that Mom might have cancer. The boys cried and weren’t sure what it all meant, and then Handsfield figured something out.
“What do I do,” she asked them, “when I’m playing soccer and I get knocked down?”
“You get back up,” they said. “You get mad.”
“Yes,” she said. “I get mad, and I get back up. I’m not going to take that. You can’t do that to me. That’s how I’m going to take this, too.”
That’s why, on a recent Wednesday night, Handsfield was with about 40 soccer friends at Huber’s taking swings at a pinata shaped like a tumor.
That’s why she created a sassy blog called — and I know we are a family newspaper, so kids read no further — bitchslapbreastcancer.blogspot.com.
(A definition, from Urban Dictionary: “To open-handedley slap someone. Denotes disrespect for the person being ... slapped as they are not worthy of a man-sized punch. Suggests the slap was met with little resistance and much whining.” See her blog for a truly astounding slo-mo demonstration. The nose shot alone is worth it.)
She started the blog mostly to keep friends and family informed about her diagnosis and treatment — and as a way to work through her own thoughts. And the name?
Part of her inspiration was a particularly rough “hockey check” she took during a soccer match last year that her kids witnessed. The other player, Jill Youse, is now a close friend and organized the Huber’s tribute.
“When I get knocked down on the soccer pitch, it’s sort of that ‘Oh, no you didn’t!’ attitude,” she said. “There’s something about the strong yet feminine quality of (the) slap. There’s an attitude involved. It’s given to someone who doesn’t deserve a full-fledged punch. It’s sort of a way to disrespect cancer.”
Handsfield learned of her diagnosis Nov. 13. It was actually the last six-month checkup scheduled after doctors found a small lump two years ago. They thought it was just calcification, or worst case, a noninvasive form of cancer, and assured her there was even a low probability of that. But it was in a spot that was difficult to biopsy, so they took images every six months.
The news came as a shock. Worse, the cancer was growing quickly.
She has an aggressive form of invasive ductocarcinoma, a commonly found breast cancer, and it was already in her lymph nodes. Luckily, even though it’s aggressive it responds well to treatment when caught early. She’s been getting chemotherapy each Wednesday since mid-December, and will have a mastectomy in the spring followed by eight more weeks of chemotherapy and then three to five weeks of daily radiation.
“They’re pretty confident that I’m going to be OK, but you don’t fool around with it,” she said.
Those early days were a blur. She remembers hugging herself as she sat in the doctor’s office, alone, and seeing a painting on the wall that looked disturbingly like her tumor. She turned it around.
After her biopsy she spent two days “wallowing.” But then it was a Wednesday night, soccer night, and she decided she needed an outlet. She called two teammates to let them know what had happened, and the entire team showed up at Soccer Planet in pink uniforms.
“I ended up scoring a goal. I just broke down crying afterwards,” she said.
There was something about being there that night. Many of the women in the league never played soccer as kids, and they aren’t exactly athletic. But they give it all they’ve got, she said, and “it doesn’t matter if they’re overweight, or breaking out, or in my case if you don’t have hair."
“It was a turnaround for me. It was like turning that painting around but in a bigger way. And it wasn’t until after that night that I really felt like I was going to have the upper hand. Rather than breast cancer doing something to me, I felt like I was doing something back.”
A group photo from that night is featured on her blog.
Handsfield is quick to say she doesn’t consider herself a hero, or even particularly strong. People constantly tell her, “You’re handling it so well,” but she’s handling it the only way she knows how. And sometimes she feels like a fraud, because those low moments still happen. She just doesn’t write about them.
When she was first diagnosed, she told her husband, “I don’t know how to do this with strength and grace.”
He replied, “Why do you think you need to?”
Her friend Zanne Newman said, “I know how.” The two had sat vigil together at the bedside of a friend who died of breast cancer back in 2001.
Newman bought a tiny stuffed dog named Grace and clipped it to Handsfield’s keychain. Later, when Handsfield grew frustrated after a day of endless waits for doctors, tests and pharmacy mixups, Newman bought her a stuffed kitten named Patience N. Hope.
“I’ve had to shift my frame for what it means to be strong,” Handsfield said. “We think being positive is being strong. Nobody gets a badge for sucking it up when you feel nauseated. It’s like when you have a baby. You don’t get a special prize for doing it without an epidural.
“There’ll be times when I’ll be curled up in bed shutting my eyes, not wanting to get out because I need to do that to send the night demons packing. But that’s strong, too. Bawling your head off can be strong if that’s what it takes.”
Part of her goal is to not let cancer define her, but rather to show people “what a healthy woman with cancer can look like, or be like, or do.”
Her friends have found her resolve empowering, and it’s brought together former rivals in the soccer crowd — some of them women who broke gender barriers playing the sport in the 1980s, said Brenda Koenig, a friend and soccer teammate.
“Everybody knows somebody who’s been affected, or has had family members or a close call themselves,” Koenig said. “Everyone fights their fight in their way, but it strikes a chord with all of us who are out there playing. We’re all just kind of survivors. It’s not her fight; it’s all of our fight.”
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at (217) 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter.com/jawurth.
Top: Lara Handsfield, right, and friend Jill Youse wear pieces of the 'tumor' pinata at Huber's on Jan. 22. Photo provided
Middle: Handsfield dribbles during a match at Soccer Planet on Jan. 29. She scored two goals. Robin Scholz/News-Gazette
Bottom: Handsfield celebrates with teammate Brenda Koenig during the Jan. 20 soccer match at Soccer Planet. Robin Scholz/News-Gazette
Today, Feb. 4, is also World Cancer Day. Learn more here: