Worse than Katrina:

How I used my New Orleans roots to overcome cancer

I am a survivor. I haven’t earned any trophies nor escaped wild beasts in the wilderness or even made a lasting impression to this planet after my demise, but I have endured insurmountable depression while laughter moved me forward with my life.

I am sure you can recall the images: flooded homes and floating cars. Washed up baby shoes and the lines for bottled water. Harrowing sights of women, waving from rooftops to rescue helicopters. Those images live on in our collective memory as a national emergency and shared tragedy. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown, New Orleans, a place I lived my entire life. That magical city which thrived on great food, crazy people, and magnificent architecture … it’s a place I lost entirely. And as those flood waters finally receded, Katrina took with it my identity. She took my neighborhood, my friends, the hospital where I was born, the office where I worked, and the huge, historical oak trees laden with moss that I so loved.

My survival kit during Katrina was a laptop, two cats, two dogs and an industrial-sized bag of Cheetos.

Those floodwaters held my city hostage as I looked at an aerial view of my home online. Only a tiny spot of the roof of my home appeared.  Everything familiar was gone and I had four addresses in four months, lived like a gypsy and grieved for everything – anything – familiar. I arrived in North Alabama by accident, where I was soothed by the Southern graciousness of the people and how caring everyone was to me. It was so humbling to stand in the Red Cross line and wait for a bag of toiletries realizing my toothpaste must have been underwater at home. The cellophane bag of generic toiletries meant more to me at the time than a Rolex watch. I looked into the sad eyes of those standing in line with me and they had that same “lost” look as I did. I had no idea I was relocating; this was not a planned press of the “reset” button. I simply blew into N. Alabama on hurricane-force winds and started my life over again like a newborn … except I was 50 years old and never lived anywhere else before.

The survivor in me oddly thrived on this unexpected journey. I rallied and found gratitude in the outpouring of support that was offered to us, the Katrina victims. I felt strong and capable, truly a survivor. That is, until a year ago when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This obstacle has dwarfed the challenges I faced during that natural disaster. The trials cancer has wrought are herculean compared to Katrina and truly, shook my world.

It all began with a sharp pain in my right side that sent me to my family doctor. Mere hours later, following a CT scan, I was told I had ovarian cancer with a tumor the size of a cantaloupe. With no time to waste and feeling incredibly depressed, within the next 48 hours I had an appointment at MD Anderson in Houston. Filled with anxiety and totally crestfallen, all I knew was that the tumor had to be removed ASAP or it could create more cells advancing to other parts of my pelvic region. I questioned: How could this tumor have gone unnoticed? Where did it come from? I had always been health conscious and now I was regretting all those times I chose Kale over Krispy Kremes, dammit.

I was fast-tracked through a complicated surgery, plus many months of chemo, with little time to think about side effects or my hair loss.  Too busy thinking about dying, the reality of this very dangerous cancer hit me a month after hospitalization. A stinging sensation first occurred in my scalp prior to my 2nd chemo treatment. I could actually feel my hair slowly wilting and falling out in clumps, not even realizing the worst was yet to come. Always trying to find humor in everything, I laugh as I recall shopping at my favorite thrift store while trying on a sweater. After my purchase, I felt so “light-headed” walking to my car. All of my hair was on the floor in the dressing room of the thrift store! No doubt the employees will never forget having to sweep away that wad of hair.

Wearing a wig was out for me. I couldn’t tolerate the dead-cat feeling atop my head. I wanted something that didn’t scream “cancer” and had a twist of funkiness to it. Having no eye brows or lashes and a 20-pound weight loss, I had to have something noticeable that made me look less alien. This is how frantic search for (and ultimate obsession with) turbans began. I found the most beautiful batik fabrics online.   My life philosophy previously had been that you need three things in life: a good accountant, a great mechanic and a fabulous hair stylist. Well, so much for that last one.

As women we tend to make our hair define us and our personality and my cancer made me realize I am so much more than hair. The turbans with vibrant colors made me feel creative and edgy and I suppose it was my New Orleans DNA that pushed me in the direction of humorous art. I realized that if I could survive Katrina, I would battle cancer. But a creative outlet was needed to deter me from the ravages of chemo and out from the black hole of depression. Oh, those six-hour drips that caused my bones to feel on fire, like lightening passing through me while my appetite was non-existent. I longed to do something creative and humorous with my hands while fighting my cancer battle. Creating art was my answer. It was time to stop concentrating on my outer shell deteriorating. My lifetime in New Orleans helped me dust off the creativity button and press it full-throttle.

Always surrounded by the eccentricities, glamour and over-the-top Mardi Gras celebrations, I had that gumbo mix of New Orleans culture in my veins. Laughing, sometimes sarcastically, at the train wreck of my life and trying to avoid “sanity” at any cost, I suddenly became inspired by the fabrics of my turbans. It was such a treat to touch the fabrics and examine them. Along with discarded NOLA Mardi Gras street treasures, I wanted to mimic my headdresses in my art. Each piece would have attached a piece of fabric, if not a full turban, because they were a part of me which I could share with others.

My message in my art to other cancer survivors is to laugh. Turn the worst-case scenarios inside out into humor. I purposely create each funky, whimsical piece with true strength and love for others so they enjoy good health. Some of that good voodoo juju, if you will. Studded with everything sparkly in my tiny studio, each sculpture and all skeleton ladies purposely wear smudged lipstick and accentuated body parts stressing that human imperfection is a beautiful thing. Each piece of my folk art has a story and I become extremely attached to them. Before they march off to their new homes, they all form a second line parade of kitsch so healthy spirits will enchant your home.

 

 

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Cindy Small arrived in N. Alabama following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A native of New Orleans, she graduated from Tulane University with an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Masters in Historic Preservation Studies. She spends her spare time writing a weekly “Spotlight” column for The Decatur Daily as well as reading her non-fiction short stories on NPR. Published in various literary journals, her writings are always humorous added with a speck of arsenic.