Play's cast knows: 'You can get through it'
The publicity materials for a Feb. 28 show featuring breast cancer survivors and others affected by the disease shows the title character of the comic strip Agnes contemplating her image in a handheld mirror.
Her hair is barely there, as is often the case with people undergoing chemotherapy, although one brave little strand sticks up, adorned by a bow.
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Tony Cochran of the Upper Arlington area, a member of the cast of The Hairdo Monologues: When Monsieur Chemo Styles Her Hair, is the creator of the comic strip, which was launched in newspapers in 1999 and now is syndicated worldwide.
A production of Hair Theater, with the financial backing of OhioHealth, The Hairdo Monologues features stories told by breast cancer survivors, the husband of a survivor, medical personnel, a male hairstylist and female wig stylist. The play will be staged at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 555 N. High St.
Cochran's wife, physical therapist Vickie Smith, is a recent breast cancer survivor. The couple met Pat Wynn Brown, the creator of Hair Theater, at an Erma Bombeck writing workshop a few years ago.
"It's a wonderful having a husband," Brown said. "I think it's going to be very important for the women in the audience, but even more important for the men."
Smith said getting together with other cast members has been as much support-group gathering as rehearsal and preparation for a production.
"It's kind of both, because anytime that survivors and their medical teams talk about anything related, it is a means of support," she said. "It's not really a support group. We have come together with a purpose to do this for the public, for awareness and to have men and women really be able to see different sides of this."
Smith and Cochran have been a couple since they were 16; they're 59 now.
When Smith lost all but six strands of hair to chemotherapy ("my gossamers," she called them), Cochran helped her pick out wigs.
"He'd say, 'That one's really hot,'" Smith recalled. "We don't call it a journey; we call it an adventure at our house. I'm a lot braver than I used to be. You never would have gotten me onstage to do something like this.
"I'm very privileged to be a part of it."
"My most fervent wish is that people come away not feeling so alone in this situation," Cochran said. "Until you're there, you don't know how completely apart you feel from society at that moment, and all you have is one another.
"Everybody has stuff going wrong in their lives, everybody has stuff doing right, and sharing both is real important."
Another cast member is Adriana de la Pena of Gahanna, coordinator for OhioHealth's Latina Breast Health Project.
"I think that this is a good opportunity to learn that somebody else had the same problem as you and what happened with their life," De la Pena said. "I think it's a good opportunity to share your experience and remember if you can tell a story about a breast cancer survivor, that means that you are on the other side."
Also in the cast of When Monsieur Chemo Styles Her Hair is Canal Winchester resident Wanda Brown. She's president of the Sisters Network, Columbus, the local affiliate of a national African-American breast cancer survivor organization.
"When you hear that you have cancer, there's this fear that comes over you," Brown said. "You don't hear anything past the word cancer. You only hear about the people who die."
It's especially important, Brown knows from personal experience, to get information about breast cancer out to black women.
"We don't talk about things like breast cancer," Brown said. "We don't know a lot about it because there's no sharing outside of your immediate family. So it's extremely important to get out that we need to be checking ourselves regularly and not to be afraid if we detect cancer and know that you can survive it."
"It was the scariest thing that I've experienced in my 60 years of life," northwest Columbus resident and cast member Peggy Kelley said of her bout with breast cancer 18 months ago. "After experiencing it, what you find out is, it's doable. It creates so much strength and courage within yourself that you never knew you had.
"There still is life that is good going forward. You can get through it."