1. What is a living history re-enactor?
The goal of living history is to teach something from the past in a more interesting way than from a book.
2. How long have you been doing living history re-enactments?
I have been volunteering for the park district for about 10 years. I recently got interested in focusing on how breast cancer treatment has evolved over the years, but I have been just speaking on the changes in treatment — not doing a true re-enactment. I focus on telling how treatments have changed so people can see how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.
3. How did you come to talk about pioneer women and breast cancer?
In 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. During that time, I read the story of Abigail Adams, who was President John Adams' daughter. They called her Nabby. I was moved by what her treatment options were in the early 1800s compared to what mine were. Although our stories began in much the same way with a lump that didn’t belong there, and we had a lot in common as we were both in our 40s and both moms, that is where our stories parted ways. I had options like radiation, chemotherapy and various surgeries. Nabby’s only choice was a very cruel surgery. This was the case for many women who battled cancer before anesthetic. They were wide awake during their surgeries. The woman had her arms and legs belted to a reclining chair or bed. The surgeon used a sharp fork or fish hook type of tool to lift the breast away from the chest wall and then, with a knife, they removed the breast. Worse, they used a razor blade in the armpits to take out the lymph nodes and a hot iron from the stove to cauterize the blood vessels. All of this without any sterilized tools and all without any kind of postoperative antibiotics. Many women survived the surgery only to die from postoperative infections. As I was laying there waiting for my surgery, I thought how lucky I was.
4. Who have you done the historical cancer talks for?
I talked at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk that was sponsored by the University of Northwestern Ohio. I got to speak on a panel at Ohio Northern University. I’ve spoken to churches — really I’m willing to speak to anyone who is willing to listen. People can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. What have been the responses to your talks?
I think people are very surprised because they haven’t really though about cancer throughout history. Breast cancer has been around since the Egyptian pyramids. The difference is women didn’t have all the options we have today.
6. In addition to treatment options, what are some other changes about the disease?
One thing we take for granted is how openly we can talk about this disease. In the past, if a woman got cancer, she concealed it from everyone — sometimes even her spouse. Unlike other cancers that couldn’t be seen, breast cancer often broke through the skin and ulcerated. People thought you could catch it. It wasn’t until one doctor sewed a piece of cancerous breast tissue into his own arm that people began to realize that it wasn’t contagious. Now we have the phone, the Internet, organizations where we can connect. Shirley Temple, who most people remember as a child actor, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1972. She is given credit for breaking the silence because she was very open about her battle.
7. What’s the most challenging thing about doing this?
For me, keeping all of the facts straight. As living history actors, I have an obligation to keep the fact straight. Skewing them would be dishonorable to the people like Nabby Adams who was a real person who really went through this. The other hard thing is that I want this to not just be a history lesson. I want to propel people forward. I want cancer patients to realize they have choices and what an awesome thing that is. It’s not enough, though, to be thankful for what we have, but we need to make even more progress. Researchers can’t do their jobs without funding. Of course, those walks and runs do more than raise money. They encourage those who are in the fight.