Joanne Dukes: Wearing Pink and still CUTE
On a sunny day in September, I strolled through the quiet halls of the loft to my dear friend’s place for lunch and to chat about her journey. My mind traveled back to the day when she heard the devastating diagnosis: cancer. Never walking in her shoes, I desired to gain a better understanding of her journey since she not only survived, but also thrived.
I knocked on the door. A big radiant smile and the bear hug that greeted me hid any indication this beautiful woman, Joanne Dukes, ever battled cancer. Joanne prepared a delicious lunch for us, but because she knew I love desserts, she also whipped up her famous chocolate cupcakes and banana bread. I sensed the beginning of a sweet interview.
We chatted a little about her life prior to the diagnosis. Since Joanne and her husband Reggie live as empty nesters, she contemplated on her plans for the rest of their lives. Her desires center on leaving a legacy and fulfilling a calling. She felt the Lord already called her to do several different things which she thoroughly enjoyed, but she still hopes to do something different.
The focus of our conversation shifted. When asked what feelings raced through her mind when she received the diagnosis of cancer, Joanne used one word…
She reflected back to a routine self-breast exam when she felt something different. But her husband didn’t notice any changes, so she blew it off. However, in hindsight, that was probably a mistake. She shouldn’t have rushed the exam and blown off the early indications. Yet, she did, and a while later, she felt something very different. It was not normal. “I felt fear because I really felt something different.”
It scared her so badly she quickly started the diagnostic process. After the biopsy, she received the news: Triple Negative Breast Cancer – Stage 3 into the lymph node. “You sit there trying to be strong listening to somebody tell you something you thought you would hear, but the reality of hearing it is surreal. It takes your breath away. What am I going to do now? How do I tell my family? Will I see my grandkids?” “Why me?” crept into her thoughts. However, they penetrated her mind only for a few minutes. Instead, she remembered telling others to trust in the Lord when facing trials. Now it was her turn. She commented, “The Lord actually gave me a peace and a calm and said ‘Why not you? You say you believe and trust in Me so I will give you an opportunity to put it into action. This is your time. Will you really trust Me with whatever happens?” With a sense of peace, she decided to do just that; trust Him.
I wondered how the impact of breast cancer affects a woman’s self-image, especially when it involves a mastectomy. Joanne assured me her womanhood and beauty bore no relationship to her breast size. “I know how society stresses things like Botox, but I don’t like surgery. I’ve never been one to think plastic surgery is the answer to fix something outwardly that is an inward problem.”
The stress of hearing the word cancer and preparing for surgery left little time to think about body image. “Even though you want to move fast, you really need to take time to decide what you truly want. I wound up getting breast implants, but had I known it would be this painful, that I had to have pain for 18 months before surgery, I never would have gotten that. I would have had a bilateral mastectomy-both breasts taken and called it a day.” She explained because of her stage of life, the diagnosis affected her more internally rather than externally. She stressed this may be different for younger women.
But Joanne paused and admitted that she truly did suffer an image problem. Not with losing her breasts. It occurred when she lost her hair. “Even though I wear my hair short, being bald took a lot. It really took a lot to get used to.” Silence swept through the room as she tried her hardest to fight back the tears. I encouraged her to take her time as I bowed my head trying to compose myself.
I finally broke the silence with a comment that she sported a beautiful baldhead and we laughed. She continued, “You have to get used to it. Not only do you not have hair on your head, you don’t have any eyebrows, eyelashes…you don’t have any hair anywhere. So, it takes getting used to it. I don’t look good in wigs, don’t wear hats, or do scarfs. When a big ole clunk came out while brushing my hair, I had my husband shave it all off…that threw me for a loop more so than having a mastectomy.”
We agreed that every woman at some time struggles with an image problem. Joanne confessed that it took her a few weeks to embrace her baldhead. Others viewed it as no big deal, but she struggled with it. To help her cope better, her girls showed her how to put eyebrows on with eyebrow pencil. She went to work and when her daughter picked her up, she asked, “Mama, where is your eyebrow?” Joanne realized she mistakenly wiped it off and no one said anything all day. “After that, I decided no more eyebrows or anything else on my face.” We laughed hard as more tears rolled from our faces, but this time, joyful contagious tears.
I asked how she prevented herself from being consumed on looks because of media influence or social pressure. Joanne’s confidence amplified as we approached this topic. She stated her husband and daughters gave her a lot of encouragement. She recalled an incident after the mastectomy. While standing in front of the bathroom mirror looking at the scar, she asked Reggie if it bothered him. He replied no. Her daughters felt the same. Because they were comfortable with it, she felt it helped her to be comfortable with it as well. “It was just a scar that didn’t define me, but a scar that said no matter what, the Lord will take care of it. Age has some freedom and I’ve been through enough stuff to know that what other people think cannot be the foundation of how I live my life. I base the foundation on the fact that I am beautifully and wonderfully made. So losing a breast doesn’t change who I am, it just changes the form of who I am, and that didn’t change me.”
Several things helped Joanne persevere and reinforced the fact she remained covered during this struggle. When they received the diagnosis, they went to the pastor and the elders at their church for prayer. Her family and her church small group also covered her in prayer as well, and her coworkers supported her throughout her journey. “The Lord just covered me in everything… Every Thursday I had chemo and every Friday I would go back to work feeling good because they gave you steroids which really helped you feel good. So Fridays were a breeze, but by Saturday and Sunday, I was sick as a dog because the effects of the chemo would kick in, but I was able to work throughout the whole process.”
She went on to say, “Despite it looking bad, it really turned out to be a ‘perfect storm.’ Everything lined up perfectly; I had the best doctors, best circumstances, and knew most of the team. It turned out to be…as funny as it may sound…a pleasurable experience because the physicians were so kind and welcoming, explaining things so crystal clear even my family was at ease.” She felt the Holy Spirit orchestrated everything.
She also relied on scriptures. Jeremiah 29:11 reminded her God knows the plans He has for her at all times. She referenced Philippians 4:13 as well stating she could do all things through Christ who strengthens her. “No matter what, I trust and believe that Christ is real and His word is true and that has brought me through. I’m in the middle of this ocean. I just can’t stop paddling now. His word has not come back void yet.”
Before our time came to a close, I wanted to know how the meaning of CUTE applied to Joanne and her situation. She thinks her journey represents the epitome of CUTE’s slogan, Covered Until The End. She believes this applies to anyone going through a test or journey where your mortality lies at stake or you experience a feeling of the unknown. “But isn’t that every day since we don’t really know what is going to happen…So we have to believe that we are covered until the end by God’s grace, mercy, and love despite the circumstances.”
Joanne believes the question boils down to: do we really trust Him as our umbrella to protect us through the storm? “Granted the legs of our pants and shoes may get wet, but we avoid getting drenched and soaked and being totally unprepared.” She went on to say the Lord protects us through the storm so we can tell others that the storm is coming. “I did make it through the storm, and I’m no worse off. I may not look the way I did when I entered the storm. I may have some scars, but scars heal, and you can be a testimony. Yes, it was a rough battle, but I didn’t lose it. Trusting in Him is worth it.”
And I dare you challenge her. Go ahead and ask her how she speaks so boldly on this subject, without bitterness. Go ahead and ask her why she is filled with so much joy. If you’re bold enough to ask, then you will probably hear her say this:
“I’m still here sweet pea. I still feel good. I have some bad days, but I didn’t make it on my own. I know it was through God’s grace and mercy and people He put in my life. My husband, family and small group church family encouraged me a lot… Yes, I know I am CUTE and not only am I CUTE but He’s put that grace on my whole family that they are CUTE too…so yes…I’m Covered Until The End!”
And with that declaration, there’s nothing left for us to discuss… except her secret recipe for her famous chocolate cupcakes and banana bread.