Written By Erin Rowley, Writer and Content Coordinator
Graduation is a proud time in a woman’s life. But for Sherry Lawson it was also a stressful time. In 1996, two weeks before she was set to graduate with a Master of Social Work degree, she found a lump on her right breast. The day after the ceremony, she had a mammogram done. That led to a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, cancer that travels to another part of the body – in this case, her bones. Cancer was found in her ribs as well as her breast.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Sherry had just graduated; her partner had just started a new business. The couple had a 2-year-old son and was thinking of having another child.
Sherry’s stress was increased by the fact that, as an out lesbian woman in a long-term relationship, she sometimes felt alienated by healthcare providers.
“We had to out ourselves each visit. It’s uncomfortable and it sets you apart,” she said.
Over the almost two decades that she’s had breast cancer, Sherry, now 59, has been thrilled to see her fellow Americans become more accepting of gay and lesbian people — the cultural landscape, she says, was much less friendly 20 years ago. But for Sherry, staying in the closet wasn’t an option. This was partly because she had decided shortly before her diagnosis that she wasn’t going to hide her sexuality from anybody, but also because her partner came to her appointments to support her.
Though she doesn’t have any “horror stories,” she says healthcare providers often wouldn’t acknowledge her partner, directing all information at her instead. Sherry would sometimes see them acting warmly toward others, only to notice their tone change when they talked to Sherry.
Sometimes, she says, she felt like she was no longer “Ms. Lawson in room 204,” but “the gay woman in room 204.”
She also felt different and separated from other women with breast cancer — if there were other lesbians in the support groups she attended, they weren’t out about it.
“Yes, we had breast cancer and yes, we were females, but it would have been so much nicer for me if I could have connected with a lesbian who was going through breast cancer as well,” she says.
The stress of maintaining a relationship while dealing with cancer is experienced by straight and gay couples alike. It strained the relationship between Sherry and her partner. The pair eventually split up, but the support that her partner provided while Sherry was going through treatment still means the world to her.
Sherry says both the person who has cancer and his or her partner face many difficulties, which can lead to ugly behavior. It’s important for both people to be understanding of what the other person is going through. She says partners of people who have breast cancer do the tough job of having to constantly be supportive, while receiving little support themselves for what they’re going through. She’s not sure she could do it if she was in the other person’s shoes.
Sherry had a quadruple heart bypass in 2009 and was diagnosed with a new breast cancer in 2011. That, along with lymphedema, swelling that develops in tissues under the skin of the hand, arm, breast or torso as a result of some breast cancer treatment, slowed her down and led her to retire in 2013.
Despite the many challenges she’s faced, Sherry says dealing with breast cancer has made her a stronger person. It’s taught her the importance of forgiveness, loving herself and using what she’s learned to help others. She’s also learned to ask for, and accept, help from others, and she’s realized just how many people in her life care about her.
Her answer when asked if she’s thriving, in spite of cancer?
“You better believe it.”