It’s Never Too Late to Poke Your Head Out
Katie Friedland had missed her latest mammogram. Between parenting her teenage son, running the art gallery she had taken over when she became a single mother, and mourning the recent loss of her beloved father, that appointment had fallen off her lengthy to-do list. Breast cancer ran in her family and her mother was a carrier of the BRCA gene mutation, so Katie knew how important it was to stay on top of her checks, but the incessant demands of her stressful life had gotten in the way.
It was the mundane task of removing an old air conditioning unit that got Katie back into the doctor’s office. While straining to lift the heavy piece of equipment, she pulled a muscle in her chest. When she went to get it checked out, her doctor found something far more alarming than a pulled muscle. A small spot had shown up on her scan. Katie had breast cancer.
What followed was a whirlwind of surgeries – first a lumpectomy and later a double mastectomy and hysterectomy – multiple rounds of chemotherapy, and repeated hospitalizations, throughout all of which Katie pushed herself to keep showing up as a mom and business owner. It was exhausting and frightening and overwhelming and awful and yet, for Katie, not the worst of what she had been through. The worst, for her, had been the decade and a half leading up to her cancer diagnosis.
Katie moved to Colorado from her native Michigan after college, following a boyfriend who soon became an ex-boyfriend, but stayed despite the breakup since it beat returning to an entirely predictable life in the same suburbs where she had grown up. She had been in Denver for several years when she did what she thought she was supposed to do: marry the right kind of man and start a family. Her son, Zak, was born a few years later. Soon after that, her family imploded.
The divorce, which lasted longer than the marriage, devolved into a bitter ongoing custody dispute. Katie struggled to shield her son from his parents’ war, raising him largely on her own, while simultaneously juggling Show of Hands, the artsy upscale gallery in Cherry Creek North that had long been her happy place, had sometimes been her refuge, and was now also her livelihood. Careening between crises, Katie was so stuck in survival mode that any dreams beyond that were out of the question.
It was into that stew of anger and resentment that cancer showed up in Katie’s life, demanding center stage. It is impossible, she says, to stare down your own mortality while hanging on to the minutiae of hate and bitterness. Quoting the rockstar Pink, Katie now calls her experience with cancer her “beautiful trauma,” the worst/best thing that could have happened. Cancer broke her open, softening the sharp edges her destructive relationship with her mother and her years-long battle with her ex had hardened, leaving in its wake an openness that she had never allowed herself before.
At 51, Katie is beginning again. Her son will be heading off to pursue his own passions soon, leaving Katie, still inching cautiously toward the title of breast cancer survivor, to figure out who she will be without his defining presence. She knows her next phase of life will include the art that inspires her, the dogs she tried to foster but fell in love with and kept, and the deeply meaningful human connections she makes every day at her store. It will definitely include the great new haircut she got courtesy of cancer – goodbye hair straighteners and hello cute, short waves! And she hopes it might also include love, if she can be brave enough to let herself be that vulnerable. That, she thinks, might be the hardest part.
An artist friend gave Katie a painting of a little girl poking her head, cautiously, out of a flower pot. The girl clearly wants to get out of her enclosure and experience the world, but she is timid and afraid that she might get hurt. Katie sees a lot of herself in that little girl; there has been a lot of hurt in her past, and leaving herself exposed has not always been rewarded. But her experience with cancer taught her that she has to venture out into the world if she wants to live, and Katie very much wants to live.
It’s Never Too Late to Poke Your Head Out.