A whole lot of Katy Beard's character, sense of humor and outlook on life is packaged in "Talking Back," a straightforward piece of prose she created in Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's writing workshop at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
It could also fit the outlook of those with cancer who are emotionally and physically capable of champing the bit of recovery firmly between their teeth. Cancer patients probably lead the league as targets of unsolicited, well-meaning advice.
Oh please not that look,
or that tone in your voice.
That look, that tone,
That makes me think I should have
Rumsey Funeral Home on speed dial.
That look that sets me apart
Makes me special, in that "different" category.
No horrid tales of cases of your
friends, relatives, who died
hairless, with drawn and painful deaths.
Don't tell me how brave I am,
Or how good I look ... considering.
Just give me a real smile
A warm hug.
And flowers wouldn't hurt.
- Katy Beard, 2005
Katy is tall, comfortable and funny. She's 68 years old.
She wastes no time getting to the heart of matters.
"My cancer experience?" she asks, laughing. "Well, first we have to go back six years to my open heart surgery."
It was 1999 and Katy was walking to her car following a Wednesday night concert in South Park.
"I got to my car and I was out of breath," she recalled. "That had never happened before."
The next day, cardiologist Dr. John Hiebert ordered a stress test.
The treadmill won.
"You only had to keep moving for six minutes and I just couldn't do it."
Next stop, St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City for an angioplasty to check the inner workings of her heart.
"After the test, Dr. Hoffman came in smiling, holding up five fingers. I thought he was giving me a good news, a high five."
"He meant I needed five bypasses. This," she said, again laughing, "after I'd carried my own suitcase into the hospital in case I had to stay overnight."
Her surgery was scheduled for early the next morning.
"I'm thinking, 'OK, you're going to have open heart surgery tomorrow. If I live, that's great, but it's a gamble,'" she said. "And I was able to keep that attitude, I was relaxed and ready."
The following day her surgery went well but her blood counts were not good. Her physician, Phil Hoffman, a self-professed "gut man," suspected there might be additional problems.
A colonoscopy found Katy had colon cancer, stage two.
According to the National Cancer Institute, colon cancer is classified in five stages beginning at zero, the most serious being Stage Four. Stage 0 means the cancer is found only in the innermost lining of the colon. Stage Four colon cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes and to other parts of the body.
"This was all new stuff to me," she said. "Here I am, 63, I'd been in the hospital maybe twice before in my life : when my daughter was born and when I bummed up a knee."
She returned to Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
"So, I'm talking to Dr. Mark Praeger about colon surgery," she said. "And Dr. Mark, being the thorough person he is, found a lump in my breast."
A same-day biopsy detected breast cancer.
"I remember driving down Sixth Street hollering 'Uncle.' I'd had enough."
Surgeries for her breast and colon cancers were performed the same day. The good news: The cancers were not related, meaning they had not joined forces (metastasized) to attack her body.
During recovery, a setback sent Katy to the emergency room. "I was hemorrhaging and there was infection but Dr. Mark came in and stopped all of that nonsense," she said.
Chemotherapy began soon after Katy recovered from colon surgery. She drove herself to and from the treatments.
"I'll never forget it. A nurse from oncology sat there and explained to me what my hair falling out would be like. Boy, mental numbness must have already set in. It was like we were talking about Miracle Whip being on sale at Dillons."
Her gray hair thinned but she didn't lose it. A hair-stylist friend gave her a Rod Stewart haircut, "a little spiky."
"It wasn't that hard. ... Oh, and they gave me flowers after my last treatment."
Next came radiation for her breast cancer.
"This was before Lawrence had a radiation facility so I rode a bus to St. Francis Hospital in Topeka with several other cancer patients. I was terrified," she said. "Radiation scared me more than the chemo."
Her fellow passengers had a calming effect.
"They were really nice people. Besides, we were all in the same boat," she said. "We'd get on the elevator - nervous, quiet - and pretty soon someone would crack a joke and we'd be laughing when we stepped off the elevator."
The nurses referred to them, kindly, as "that bunch from Lawrence."
"On the way home we always shared our stash of chocolate for our treat," she recalled.
The five survivors from the original group of eight meet once a year "to celebrate the fact that we're still around."
The phone rings in Katy's tiny apartment.
"Never mind," she says with a wave of her arm, "it's just someone calling to see if I'm taking a nap."
After the chemo and radiation, her oncologist, Dr. Ron Stevens, ordered a series of CT scans.
"He said he knew something was going to pop up and eventually they found a spot on my lung. They cut that out along with part of my lung," she said.
The surgery went "swimmingly," but the lung biopsy hurt like "Holy Ned."
"I tell everyone that smokes, but I don't nag them, I say 'Child if you'd ever had a lung biopsy you'd put that cigarette out right now.'"
Katy smoked for three years, quitting when she became pregnant in 1959.
Katy's reflections on fighting cancer
When people I know are diagnosed with cancer they sometimes think I can tell them more than their doctors will or can.
First, get a good doctor and believe in the doctor you get.
I shopped for a radiologist and I went to one that I wouldn't take my cat to see. He was just too cold, calculating and detached for me.
I will always give my docs credit for telling me they were going to look at this or that whether I wanted them to or not.
Dr. Phil Hoffman had wanted me to do a colon test, the little culture test, and I kept blowing him off. Bad decision.
One bother is that people don't get diagnosed fast enough. One woman was sure she had a cold or allergy, but by the time she had a proper examination she was already in stage 2 or 3 cancer.
I told Dr. Ron Stevens I didn't want to do chemotherapy. I saw what it did to my mom and dad. Thank the Lord he drew a graph on a blackboard showing me how long I'd be on the face of the earth if I did chemotherapy and how long I'd be around if I didn't do chemotherapy.
In a casual, even manner he said it was my choice.
I said, "Let's do chemo."
As she describes it, her lung biopsy required that she be awake while a needle was inserted between her ribs and into the lung.
"I guess they keep you awake so you can say 'ouch.' It is ungodly. If I didn't think my mother was listening I'd have called the man with the needle a lot of names," she said.
Katy doesn't do marathons ("never did") but can now endure treadmills.
So, the lung came after the radiation that came after the chemotherapy, that came after the breast, along with the colon, that came after the heart.
"We always tease: Dr. Hoffman watches my colon, Dr. Praeger watches the boob and Dr. Stevens watches me all over," she said smiling, "so I have a social life of going to see my doctors if nothing else."
Katy grew up in Rosedale, a suburb of Kansas City, Kan.
"I didn't know I lived in a ghetto until I left town."
"Everybody in my family sang and everybody drank," she said, I really can't recall ever seeing any of my uncles without something to drink in their hand,"
She loves hats.
"Way back when hats were popular when you got your first hat with a veil you were considered to be a woman of the world," she said after modeling a pink straw with a veil.
To win a bet, when she was 14 Katy wore a black hat with a veil into a Kansas City, Mo., bar and got served.
"Silly me, I ordered a Manhattan and that's a really nasty drink."
Her father, a labor organizer for the AFL-CIO, died of lung cancer at 78 and her mother from liver cancer at 73. A brother died at 33 from a heart attack.
"I've got the bad heart and cancer stuff lurking in the background," Katy said.
Katy, twice married and divorced, has a daughter, Mimi Thebo, a Kansas University graduate and author now living in England.
Was Mimi in town for Katy's episodes?
"I figured the heart deal was my little drama and I'd call Mimi, and my nephews and cousins afterward to tell them everything was fine," she said. "But my friend Kelly called everyone and they were all there," Katy said sheepishly. "When I woke up and saw all of the people I thought, 'Man, I must really be sick.'"
Why not invite them?
"They probably had better things to do than watch me run up hospital bills."
Speaking of medical bills.
"I retired from Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Topeka - a sales rep over 65 markets - traveled Kansas explaining Medicare so when I retired in 1993, I got health benefits," she said. "So I had the coverage I needed to get through all of this."
Katy says a trip to the pharmacy can be uncomfortable.
"I take a lot of medication and I have co-pays," she said. "Watching seniors my age pay large amounts is a terrible, terrible thing."
So what was the draw to LMH's writing workshop?
"When I would see young women going through cancer, young women with breast cancer with small children at home I wanted to go up to the husband of a 35-year-old and say 'I'm sorry it wasn't me.' Not that I want to give up the ghost and die, but I don't have that awesome responsibility of getting those children raised. I'm burying a lot of people younger than I am and it really bothers me."
She thought the fellowship and putting her feelings to paper might bring about some reason. After first being intimidated by the other workshop participants she thought were more talented, she found it a "great" experience.
"I got a better handle after talking with others around a table and being reminded who decides who dies and when is in someone else's hands," she said. "But I didn't need to be reminded that my granddaughter Libby Jo is a great reason to be alive."
After retiring from Blue Cross/Blue Shield and before Katy's medical roller coaster she enrolled at KU.
Needing a part-time job to make ends meet she applied for a Sunday bartending job.
The bar was the Laughing Dog Saloon at 19th Street and Haskell Avenue.
It's fairly safe to say that few if any Lawrence Police officers had to ask directions when dispatched to a disturbance at "The Dog."
Katie said she probably learned more bartending than she did at KU.
"It's really something to meet people late in my life who used to be part of a cause, like the Civil Rights movement. : Here they are drinking at your bar and you don't want them walked on," she said. "Some of them have nothing to lose, some just don't care and that can sure put you out there on the edge of stuff."
She said her customers were "Native American, the Brothers and people from the neighborhood." They played pool, kept the jukebox busy, and things were relatively calm, most of the time.
"They called me 'Miss Katy' and they usually didn't mess around because they knew I wasn't going to put up with any nonsense. I didn't believe in calling the police when they got a little rowdy."
So, when they were "messin'" around with the pool sticks and hitting each other on the shoulders or in the head she took the pool cues away and "I'd put them in time-out, just like children."
She said it worked.
When she was hospitalized, some of Katy's old customers stopped by to visit, sometimes puzzling the hospital staff.
Today, a couple of days a week, Katy serves up refreshments and conversation at Stu's Midtown Tavern in the Hillcrest Shopping Center, Ninth and Iowa streets.
"Being a bartender is like show business with your hands in dishwater," she said waving her hand. "And it helps to be a good listener. A good bartender never repeats what they hear from behind the bar.
"This is a mellow group. ... They're like family."
She's worked at Stu's four years.
Although she's surrounded by a lot of whiskey and atmosphere, Katy hasn't touched the stuff for several years.
"I think I make better decisions when I don't have a glass of gin in my hand," she says laughing.
Sometimes dancing with your own mortality can bring about change.
"I used my humor to cover up feelings for a long time, especially when I was younger," she says. "Now, humor is just me."
Katy has new priorities. She isn't impressed when friends or customers lament about the outcome of the World Series or who won Academy Awards.
"I say, 'Oh yeah, I've got to put that on my list of things to cry about.'"
She says she doesn't take herself very seriously.
"My body let me down. I was perfectly healthy, I could run a cold off in a day, never had a bit of trouble but made up for it in six years," she said.
There have been other changes.
"I know I'm a different person than I was six years ago," she said. "I know friendship is more valuable than money. Not having money doesn't scare me. Once you've been carried through the hospital bleeding at both ends you realize it's not that important or healthy to have a lot of pride in yourself or your work. You show up and do the best you can."