Bosom Buddies coverage

Bosom Buddies: Breast cancer survivors find solace through theater


by Gary Dutton
Published Dec. 2, 2004

HANOVER – It’s not exactly theatre, but then again it is. No, it’s not exactly theatre, it’s more powerful, far more powerful.

It’s players are not actresses – their portrayals are stronger than that, brutally realistic.

The stars of Bosom Buddies are, after all, survivors, each a survivor of breast cancer who brings her own story to tell.

Together, the eight Upper Valley women will tell their stories in theatre Dec. 7, 9, and 11 at the Bernice A. Ray Elementary School in Hanover. Their individual stories of fear and hope, of denial and acceptance, of love and how it helped them in their fight against cancer are spun together to tell a story of what happens when real life goes terribly wrong.

What’s most amazing about Leah Carey’s production is that its writers – the on-stage participants themselves – although they are all breast cancer survivors, had never met before Carey put her concept into motion just over three months ago. Neither had any of the eight ever worked on stage.

Their message, though, is delivered so poignantly and with such power that professional actresses working from the best script money could buy would pale in comparison. Bosom Buddies grabs you by the heart and refuses to let go. Like its players, it speaks to you from a deep gut level, a place we all fear, yet dare not turn our attention from.

“Somehow,” Marcia Berry says, “having cancer has given me an identity. But who am I, anyway?” she asks, a question all eight will address as they bare their souls during the 75-minute performance.

Berry lives in Grantham. At 64, she is the oldest of the eight. She has twice fought the dreaded six-letter word, first in 1988, when a mastectomy was needed to save her life, and then again in 2003, this time given a new lease on life through a lumpectomy procedure.

Life. It’s something the eight have come to cherish like never before, both life and fear. It’s the fear, one participant says, “of going to sleep and not waking up. It’s the fear,” she says with more emphasis, “of going to sleep AND waking up.”

Betsy Duany of Plainfield is the youngest of the eight. At 35, she’s already a cancer survivor of more than eight years. “1996,” the former WNNE television personality says without pausing to think, “June 7, 1996.” She was only 26 when she heard the awful news that day.

Awful news and how it arrives, how the victim and her family are blown away by it, and how it immediately and forever changes their lives, is also discussed in Bosom Buddies. Carole Webber, 57, like Marcia Berry, has heard the bad news twice, first in 1992 and again in 2001.Twice she’s heard that awful six-letter word, and twice she’s undergone a mastectomy.

The eight women speak of their real-life experiences with wigs – wigs worn so their families won’t have to explain their illnesses, one says. They speak of being scared, of denial, and of saying their diagnoses couldn’t be right. Bad things, they thought, don’t happen to good people, to religious souls.

Renee Russell, 53, has five children and two grandchildren. The Thetford resident knows well about wigs, about fear, about denial. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, she underwent a mastectomy procedure. She is a survivor.

“I rush to get the mail before my mother does,” one of the eight reads, “so if it’s bad news, I’ll get it instead of her.” Like the others, Bonnie Ladeau knows of how many cancer patients feel that they are somehow to blame for their illness, that it’s something they’ve done to themselves and their family.

Ladeau, 60, lives in Hartford with her husband Al. They have six children, six who are thankful their mother’s breast cancer was halted by a lumpectomy procedure in 2002.

Of “corrective” surgery, one of the eight reads, “They carve open my belly and build me a new breast,” punctuating the brutality of that reality with “just as, 15 years ago, they carved open my belly and gave me a new son.”

Dee Pingleton, 59, lives in Post Mills. The mother of two and grandmother of another pair, Pingleton got the bad news in 1986. Then undergoing a lumpectomy, the CAT-scan technologist at Alice Peck Day has been cancer-free for 18 years.

“What is heaven?” one of the eight asks. “What do they have in heaven? Will I like it there?” It’s something all eight have had to think about, and to ask themselves in their most private moments. “Will I like it there?”

P.J. Hamel is 51. She and her husband Rick live in Hanover. They have a 19-year-old son. P.J. underwent a mastectomy procedure in 2001 after hearing the six-letter word. Like the others, she has wondered what tomorrow will bring – if she’d even be here to know.

“Will I fail,” one of the eight asks, “fail to be brave?” It’s a deep thought, one that each of the eight has asked herself. But they’ve all ultimately found that they were indeed brave, if for no other reason than that they had no alternative.

“It was when I had nothing else to lose,” one of the eight says, “that God gave me something else to win.” It’s a statement of the faith that has carried each of them through their individual ordeals.

Kathy McGovern, 49, like the other seven, has called upon her faith to carry her through when times were at their worst. The Orford resident works in Student Affairs at the Dartmouth Medical School. Diagnosed in 1997, she overcame breast cancer through a mastectomy procedure. She, too, is a survivor.

The eight poke fun at hospital gowns during Bosom Buddies. They acknowledge the brutal reality of the medical bills that come with cancer, and of their frustration with everything from giving up control of their bodily functions to morphine to taking stock of the regrets that fill their minds when they’re told their days may be numbered.

“What will death be like?” one of the eight asks. It’s the ultimate question everyone eventually has to ask themselves and the cast of Bosom Buddies knows it all too well, because, unlike actresses, they are everyday people, the people you pass on the street, eight people who have faced breast cancer head- on and are now able to talk about it.

Carey, 30, lives in Franconia, NH. Having already worked in professional theatre for a dozen years, she conceived Bosom Buddies partly from her own personal fears.

“It is,” she says of breast cancer, “a cancer that attacks a woman like none other.” While Carey has no family history of the disease, she calls it “certainly the one that I most fear.”

Having decided what she wanted Bosom Buddies to be and what it would say, she recruited the eight strangers who will star in it from a pool of about 20 who answered her newspaper ads.

That “cast” in hand, she then sat down with New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult of Hanover, who shepherded the eight through writing workshops so that they could articulate their ordeals with cancer.

That work will come to fruition Dec. 7, 9, and 11 at the Bernice A. Ray Elementary School in Hanover, with 7:30 PM performances of Bosom Buddies: An exploration of breast cancer in the words of survivors. It’s an experience that will touch everyone deeply, especially adult women.

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