The past five years of Carole Alston-Bissett’s life have shown her the greatest joy and the most profound sorrow. After celebrating her marriage in September 2008, the model and QVC vendor representative from Long Island, New York, was diagnosed with breast cancer less than two years later, in July 2010 at age 46.
Having always enjoyed great health and with no family history of cancer, Carole had not made time for a mammogram since 2001 and did not perform regular self-exams. Having noticed a lump in her breast by chance as she was getting dressed one day, she made an appointment to have it checked out—expecting to be told that it was benign. Instead doctors told her that though the cancer had been detected early, at Stage I, she had a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer and would require extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Though the treatment would very likely be extremely effective, she had a long road ahead. “When the doctors told me what I was in for over the next nine to 12 months, I was in shock,” Carole says. “I couldn’t even really listen to what they were telling me; thank goodness my husband and mother were there because I really don’t remember much of what was said.”
As the reality of her diagnosis and treatment plan set in, Carole found that the prospect of losing her hair and the challenges that treatment would present became a major emotional hurdle. Newly married, she faced anxiety over the impact that the change in her appearance and other side effects would have on her new married life and her sense of self. “The biggest thing—before I could even accept the cancer diagnosis and my good prognosis—the thing that was most important to me was the attack on my femininity,” she says. “I found myself worrying, Is my husband still going to love me? Am I going to look crazy? I wasn’t thinking about living; I was just thinking about the fact that I no longer felt like a woman.”
It was when Carole began regular chemotherapy and spent time with other women undergoing treatment that she was delivered a powerful dose of perspective. As she listened to the stories of the other patients, many of whom faced terminal diagnoses and immense personal challenges, she was overcome with gratitude for the support she was receiving from her husband and other family and friends and with awe at the grace and the fortitude shown by the other women.
The experiences of one fellow patient in particular—a 45-year-old single mother with three children, who faced extensive treatments and financial hardship—highlighted for Carole the need for perspective. “When I considered her story,” Carole says, “I thought to myself, I really don’t have it so bad. It was then that I started to realize that living and helping other people is a little more important than losing my hair.”
Though she was fighting her own battle, Carole realized that she had the opportunity to help others and offer inspiration by sharing expertise about the very issue she had been so concerned with herself: appearance-related side effects. “When I would go to chemo, I would get dolled up,” she says. “I’d wear different wigs—blonde, red, brunette, short, or long—and other women would want to talk to me about my appearance because they thought that because I looked put together and presented myself so well I was healthy. But I told them, ‘No, I’m just like you.’” Soon, Carole says, her efforts with her appearance became a running joke in the treatment center. “I’d go to chemo and I’d dress like I was going to a polo match; the other women loved to see the outfits and the wigs—they’d say, ‘What’s she going to wear? What’s her wig today?’ and it started to be an inspiration for a lot of the women.”
Noticing the interest, Carole shared her positive attitude—and tips about wigs and other appearance-related issues—with the other patients. That experience, she says, really showed her the power of a positive spirit. Now, a year past her final treatment, she continues to benefit from the lessons she learned during her journey, and she hopes to encourage other women to overcome the challenges a diagnosis can bring. “You really have to think positive no matter what. You still have to get up, put your makeup on, and brush your hair,” she says. “This disease can come and get you, but you can’t let it bring you down.”
Sadly, Carole has found herself calling on the power of her own message in the past year, in the wake of her husband’s unexpected death. Having come through her cancer treatment bolstered by his love and support, she must now face a new normal—as a survivor and a widow—on her own. As she describes the sadness and the stress of the past year, though, there is an undeniable strength in her voice, a determined edge that speaks to her inner strength and her passion for continuing to help others.
As a committed volunteer for the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund (see story on page 78), Carole is moving forward, propelled by her desire to make a difference. As she discusses her volunteer work, she notes something that Beth Baldwin herself often says: “You’re a freshman when you’re diagnosed with cancer, and there’s always a senior who reaches out and helps you along.”
“Now I’m that senior, and I’m not going to just walk away from this experience,” Carole says. “I don’t know how anyone could go through this and just walk away. There are so many people to help.” _