Print this Page

Articles about Leah – Bosom Buddies

Bosom Buddies
by Steve Gordon
Valley News Staff Writer
Published December 4, 2004

When Kathy McGovern was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, the tumor and her right breast were removed. Everything else – her anger and fear, her need to talk to people about the experience – stayed inside.

She avoided traditional support groups because she didn’t see herself as high enough in the hierarchy of suffering”; despite having a mastectomy, she hadn’t undergone chemotherapy or radiation, which can make cancer treatment even more painful and sickening. “I really didn’t think I was worthy of a support group.”

McGovern, who is 49 and lives with her parents in Orford, describes herself as a loner, a private person who in the years following her cancer treatment had no outlet for the emotions that the illness provoked. “They began popping out,” she said in an interview this week, “at inappropriate times.” More than once she broke into tears while at work in the student affairs office at Dartmouth Medical

Next week, McGovern will bring those long-hidden emotions not only into the open, but onto the stage. She and seven of her newest and probably closest friends are the cast of Bosom Buddies, in which the eight breast cancer survivors will present the results of a three-month writing/theater workshop organized by a young, energetic director and including best-selling author Jodi Picoult of Hanover as writing coach.

Early in the fall, McGovern saw a poster advertising the workshop on a door at the medical school. Writing. Theater. Breast Cancer. She kept walking, but she was intrigued enough to keep thinking about it. “I can’t act,” she told herself. “I’ve never tried writing from the heart.”

In the Bosom Buddies script, McGovern tells the story of how she decided to sign up. “Life has gotten out of control. I’m concerned that I’m crying in my car; I’m crying when I hear a sad song, I won’t talk with my co-workers unless it’s strictly business. There’s that poster again. It’s not like me to write or act. I don’t like me this way. Maybe I’ll try something not me.”

Leah Carey, a 30-year-old Brandeis University graduate with a degree in theater and directing, had been wanting to create a project that helped people tell their own stories, and had decided to try it with prison inmates. A Picoult novel she was reading included a scene in prison, and she got the idea to contact the author.

“I really believe in fate, and this project has from the beginning had that feeling about it,” said Carey, who lives in Franconia, NH.

She emailed Picoult through a website, thinking she’d be fortunate to hear back in a few months, and then probably from an assistant forwarding the author’s polite regrets. Instead, she had a response from Picoult the next morning, explaining that she didn’t have time, but still wanted more information. Carey sent details of what she wanted to do, and got another quick reply.

“She said,” I don’t have time to do this, but I think it’s such a great project that I’d like to be a part of it anyway,” Carey said.

The two women were within a couple days of beginning the workshop in a Vermont prison when it fell through for lack of interested and available inmates. Since they had already discussed the idea of working with breast cancer survivors at a later date, switching to that as Plan B was, in Carey’s words, “a no-brainer.”

Neither she nor Picoult, who is 38, has had breast cancer, and neither has a family history of it. Curiously, though both women say they have always thought they would get it eventually. Working intimately with women who’d had breast cancer – at least some of whom said they, too, had half expected to get it – was a bit of therapy for them, as well. “I wanted an opportunity to exorcise my demons before they came and got me,” Carey said.

P.J. Hamel, who lives in Hanover, was probably the most natural writer of the eight women. She’s a writer and editor at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, and she jumped at the chance to join the workshop as much for the opportunity to work with Picoult as for the potential help in working out her cancer demons.

Like McGover, she had avoided standard support groups after undergoing a lumpectomy in her right breast, then a mastectomy followed by breast reconstruction, and then chemotherapy and radiation.

“When I was going through active treatment,” Hamel, 51, wrote in an email this week, “a support group felt like just one more commitment, one more trip to the hospital. Once I was done, I felt strong, as though I’d faced a huge challenge, and triumphed. Thus I didn’t feel the need for ‘support’ then, either. But it’s been the long aftermath; the months and months of wondering ‘will it come back?’, dealing with the long-lasting side effects of chemo and radiation, that have kept the specter of cancer from retreating completely out of my life. I feel like my friends and family went through enough with me at the time. … This new group was just the ticket: women who know what I’m talking about, have their own similar experiences, can share their own feelings, and can thus help me deal with mine.”

But also like McGovern – and every other member of the group – summoning the nerve to write down intensely personal thoughts and feelings was not the most challenging part of the workshop. Picoult promised them at the start that she would “make them bleed” on paper, and they all say she did that. After the bleeding, though, came the sweating. The theater part. The part that transformed their writings into a Studs Terkel-like oral history project.

Carey said the women were varying degrees of terrified at the start, even of reading their work to each other. Week by week, using exercises that encouraged them to reveal themselves more and more in the comfort of strangers-turned-friends, they opened up, the director said.

At a recent rehearsal, she encouraged them to read their parts once in a small, quiet way, then in a big, more flamboyant way, and then a third time combining the techniques. “Find the big moments and the small moments, and really let us see the difference,” she told them.

On stage, the women will wear blue T-shirts with pink handprints over the breast affected by cancer. Some will be wearing two handprints.

“That they had the courage to make that journey is, to me, really incredible,” she said in an interview a few days later.

Picoult, too, professes amazement at the progress the women made over the last few months, during which she challenged them with a wide range of writing prompts, some having to do with cancer, some not. “A lot of the time when they weren’t writing about cancer, they were, and they just didn’t know it,” she said.

The topics covered in the script include getting the news of a cancer diagnosis, what it means to be a woman who’s had a mastectomy, dealing with family, dealing with doctors, looking the future, among others. There are light moments, such as when Dee PIngleton of Post Mills, VT, is visited in the hospital by an acquaintance who had shaved his head as a gesture of solidarity.

“How do I tell him I’m having radiation, not chemo?” – meaning she wouldn’t be losing her hair. And there are sad, touching moments, such as Marcia Berry of Grantham wakes up in a hospital bed after surgery, having assumed that all would be fine after a simple procedure, no more than a lumpectomy, and knew from the looks on her family’s faces and from the bandages covering her body that all was not fine. [NOTE FROM LEAH: this story refers to an experience in the late 1980s, before needle biopsies, and this type of “surprise” procedure would NOT occur today.]

Picoult recalled several emotional high points from the writing part of the workshop, zeroing in on a passage written by Betsy Duany of Plainfield, who was 26 when diagnosed. She’d been told she probably couldn’t have children, but four years later, her daughter was born and she was about to breastfeed her for the first time.

“I’m wondering if I can nourish a newborn with one breast,” Duany, now 35, wrote in a passage that appears in the script. “I take a deep breath. This is a moment I’ve waited a long time for…Alli’s eyes were still closed as she nursed for the first time, her tiny little hand resting over my heart. My love for Allison filled the void where my breast once was.”

“When she read that (aloud) after writing it, she was crying,” Picoult recalled. “We were all crying.”

Despite its somber topic, and despite the lingering possibility of recurrence that all cancer patients live with (“Every time you sneeze crossways, you think it’s back,” said Berry), Bosom Buddies is meant to be an uplifting experience for audiences, according to the players and their two leaders, particularly for other women facing breast cancer. The message, they say, is that there can be life after cancer.

“It (can give) them a resolve, a determination, an understanding that you can hit rock bottom and still stand up again,” Picoult said.

The show has also been a benefit to its cast, because despite the reluctance of almost all of them to join a cancer support group, that’s obviously what Bosom Buddies turn into. “It’s opened up all of the stuff that you go through (with cancer),” said Berry, 64. “Sharing it made it seem less intense. It was kind of a freeing experience.”

Kathy McGovern describes it in even more profound terms. After half a lifetime as a mostly solitary person, she allowed herself to share her life and her private side with other people. “That’s what I’ve been missing, is people,” she said, her voice cracking just a bit as she tried to explain what the workshop has meant to her. “I don’t think I’ve realized that, (or) had the opportunity to be with people.
That’s what I’ve learned from this group.

“I bless whoever put up that poster at the medical school.”

Permanent link to this article: