My name is Kathleen Wyer Lane, and I’m 70 years old.
When I was young, I aspired to be a newspaper journalist, but my working life has been in marketing and public relations, though my early interest in writing has certainly helped me in my professional career. When I graduated from college, I went into teaching for a short while, largely because that was the only thing available for me at the time. After that, I went to work for Xerox as a sales manager and representative; while there, I became interested in international sales, but was told they would never hire a black woman for the position, which was the day I decided to leave Xerox. I moved to Egypt to work for a small travel agency in their European marketing department. Eventually, I went to HBO for two years, and then joined the public relations department of an advertising agency managing the General Motors account.
I came from a small family. My mother was an only child, and I had one sister and one aunt on my father’s side, so there wasn’t a long thread of female relatives for me to refer to in terms of their experiences of menopause, or even life in general. When it came to my own menopause, I just kind of let it happen, and my only real disappointment in that regard was that I wouldn’t any longer be able to have children; but then we discovered that my husband couldn’t biologically father children anyway, so it didn’t matter. Several years before I had breast cancer, I remember once being very flushed and perspiring heavily while I was in a business meeting; but when I went through chemotherapy, I never experienced, then or later, any of the kinds of problems associated with menopause like hot flashes or insomnia, so I don’t think I really ever went through a traditional menopause.
I had breast cancer when I was 39, which I thought was very young, even though it runs in my family on my father’s side. My grandmother and my aunt had breast cancer, and both of them eventually died from it, not the least reason being that back in the day, in the South in their circle, there was a cultural prejudice against surgically cutting into the kinds of lumps or masses they knew they had. At the beginning, I had an extremely tough, hard-edged six-month round of chemotherapy, and nothing happened differently and my period came right on schedule. Then, when I started the next six-month round, which was milder and more of a cocktail of drugs, my period stopped happening right away. But let me say, losing my hair was more important to me than anything. It wasn’t only because I was so young, which I was, but black women are big on hair, which made it that much more difficult for me to accept. I never saw myself when I was bald because I never looked into a mirror unless I had my wig on, and that was a survival technique. I had a radical mastectomy and eventually underwent a reconstruction. The attitudes surrounding the way cancer patients are supposed to behave, like we’re survivors and we’ll overcome this and be strong and beautiful, well that kind of thinking didn’t work for me. I got negative feedback from other women about my reconstruction, as if it was some kind of badge of honor to walk around without one of my breasts, to just let it be what it was. But I had a terrific surgeon, and my breast reconstruction still looks wonderful after all these years. My other concern at the time was dating, because by then I was divorced, and I wanted to meet a nice guy and have a good figure. And I have an inner strength to overcome the problems I’ve faced over the years, though I guess challenges would be the word we’d use these days for saying that instead.
When I got sick, friends of mine would give me books, things by Deepak Chopra and books about diet and food and living with cancer. And I had other friends who supplied me with pot when I was doing chemotherapy, and that was kind of fun. It worked amazingly well, and kept me from ever getting sick from the treatments all the way through, and of course now I’m a huge proponent of medical marijuana.
When I was being treated and looking for jobs, I wouldn’t offer information about my health status. I wouldn’t hide anything if I was asked directly, but the atmosphere at the time didn’t feel as tolerant about that as it may be today. But whenever it did come up and I’d tell people, the first thing they’d do was look at my breasts. Their eyes would just go straight to my breasts. It was a funny kind of a reaction.
I’ve always been interested in people who are different from me, especially people who are not Americans. My father was a field director for the American Red Cross, and as a young girl I lived in Germany outside of Giessen, and I believe that learning or knowing about people from other cultures is a reaffirmation of one’s own essence. When we expose ourselves to people from different socio-economic backgrounds, we discover that their wants and needs, though perhaps shaped differently based on their family histories and circumstances, are fundamentally very similar to our own.
I was diagnosed as having had a heart attack about three years ago. The symptoms for women’s cardiac events are a lot different than those for men. I was just a little out of breath and didn’t understand why, so I went to see my regular physician and he hospitalized me right away, but thankfully I didn’t need to have any surgery. I’ve been on drugs for that, and as a result I’ve had to give up a lot of my work and clients. I’m on the mend now, and trying to rebuild my business, mainly with corporations and nonprofits.
My great-great grandfather was a drummer boy in the Union Corps d’Afrique in Louisiana during the Civil War. Since my maiden name is rather unusual, it was easy for me to find a lot of information about him. After he was mustered out of the Civil War, he became a music teacher. He taught all of his children how to read, and master the language of music, and they all became jazz musicians, including one of my great uncles Paul Wyer. Paul left left the United States in 1919 and went to England with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, performing for King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace; after that he went to Paris, where he eventually met the French actress and singer Mistanguett and became part of her back-up orchestra; then he sailed off to Argentina with Gordon Stretton and his Orchestre Syncopated Six, where he lived for the remainder of his life, recording and performing with many of the best bands and singers of the time, as well as leading his own orchestra, appearing in films, and becoming a major landowner. He was quite an interesting guy to say the least, and I’m so sorry that I never got the chance to meet him. A namesake Pete Wyer, who lives in England, is now a dear friend of mine; in fact, last year he asked me to work with him on the 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas. He wrote a musical piece for Thomas’ poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion, and I got people to participate in a choral group related to that. I’d had to let much of that go for a while, and getting back to working on my family history that I’m so proud of is like a whole new transition in life for me.