Real Life Relationships: Memories of babies and beer ease mammogram fear

Just as a driver’s license comes at age 16, and the right to legally purchase alcohol comes at 21, I’ve always known mammograms come at age 40. They are less exciting than a car or cocktail, but still a rite of passage.

Maybe all women know mammograms are recommended at 40 (for some, even younger), but I am acutely aware because my grandmother survived breast cancer twice and my friend, Laura Lee Cantrell, lost her life to breast cancer two and a half years ago.

When I met Laura Lee in 2006, everyone referred to her as the “baby whisperer.” I found that ironic, considering she was the loudest person in every room, never shying from the “f” word, which she pronounced with a twang, courtesy of her Big Stone Gap, Virginia roots.

Laura Lee was a straightforward, fiery redhead, a force to be reckoned with, wielding a Budweiser in hand and a sarcastic comment on the tip of her tongue. “Baby whisperer,” they said, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t find her particularly warm or comforting, so I silently, politely disagreed.

Five years after I met Laura Lee I had my first baby, and my perception of her began to shift. She seemed to like me more with a baby, and she liked my baby more than she liked me.

She reached out for him expectantly when I walked through the door. When he cried, she shooed me and soothed him. When I had questions about his care, she knew the answers. She had three children of her own, and I quickly came to see her as an expert. Her knowledge was vast, as was her love for children. So, she IS the baby whisperer, I acquiesced.

Over the next decade or so, like ivy on a trellis, Laura Lee grew on me. I found it impossible not to succumb to her authentic mix of humor, heart, and hijinks. Her blunt and wild was a stark contrast to my conservative and self-conscious. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire, maybe even envy, her brazen, uninhibited nature. And I wasn’t alone, as was evident by her wide circle of friends.

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In 2018, Laura Lee found a painful, pea-sized lump in her right breast, which led her to get a mammogram, bloodwork and biopsy. Within a couple weeks, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Laura Lee immediately began chemotherapy and radiation, followed by a double mastectomy.

Though she probably felt a slew of emotions, she kept them close to her chest and trudged forward with a take-care-of-business attitude. Unwilling to watch her hair fall out slowly, she asked her neighbor to come over and shave her head. She didn’t bother with wigs. A ball cap sufficed. And she didn’t shy away from the camera, but sent smiling selfies to friends, her bald head gleaming.

I recall her telling me about chemo. She’d describe how sick some of the patients were, suffering from nausea and an array of other symptoms. Laura Lee said she felt fine physically but was sick for them. Pray for them, she’d tell me.

By the time her youngest child graduated high school in 2019, Laura Lee’s hair was growing back, and she was feeling well. Her treatment was over, other than a daily maintenance drug.

Laura Lee’s health took a turn that November. She didn’t want to mar the holidays with fuss or worry, so she and her husband, John, kept the news to themselves. They enjoyed Christmas with their children. On Jan 2, .2020, Laura Lee told them, as well as close family and friends, that the cancer had returned.

Laura Lee struggled a lot over the following weeks. Doctors found the cancer had spread throughout her body. She was admitted into the hospital on Jan. 21. Her friends sent her pictures of themselves, drinking a Budweiser in her honor, hoping to make her smile. This Bud’s for you, Laura Lee, we wrote.

She struggled to breathe and was in and out of a sedated sleep those last couple days. Her oxygen was low, making conversation minimal. Laura Lee, only 53 years old, passed away Jan. 30.

Laura Lee had a traditional Catholic service. Friends stood at the altar and shared their most touching Laura Lee stories. As I listened, I thought of one of mine.

Much as she loved to snuggle babies, Laura Lee was not a hugger. She made an exception one day and I’ll never forget it. In 2017, months after my oldest son passed away, Laura Lee enveloped me in a brief, but tight hug. I was hugged often, but only hers caught me off guard. The meaning of it surpassed words.

When I was at my annual appointment this July, just weeks after my 40th birthday, my gynecologist said it was time to schedule a mammogram. I nodded affirmatively.

I was nervous the morning of my appointment. I thought about how uncomfortable I’d feel, topless in front of a stranger. I wondered how painful the mammogram would be, how long I’d wait for results. I filled out paperwork and tapped my foot to the song playing in the waiting room. As I attempted to drown out my jitters, the loud, foul-mouthed voice of Laura Lee came to mind. I pictured her, sipping a Budweiser, telling me to get this (expletive) done. A nurse stepped out and called my name.

As I headed back for my very first mammogram, I smiled and thought this one’s for you, baby whisperer.

Keri Janton is a writer based in Sugar Hill. She is also the director of the Maximus Janton Foundation, a non-profit she launched in memory of her son. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. To learn more visit www.komen.org.

Real Life Relationships is a monthly reader-contributed essay that explores the many ways in which we are connected and the all of the emotions those connections can bring into our lives. Interested in contributing? Email nedra.rhone@ajc.com with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.” Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/).