After only a few short minutes of talking with Camilla Schade, I had completely forgotten we were in Ithaca Bakery. I had forgotten my phone was recording our interview, and most remarkably, I had forgotten we had only met just moments before. As the time ticked on, the interview transformed into two girls simply catching up, laughing and crying over stories that were longing to be told.
Schade was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009. “I changed into a dress the day I found out,” she said. “I wanted to feel feminine. I wanted to feel pretty.” Her response did not surprise me, because she had already told me earlier about the attractive blouse she was wearing on the day of her biopsy. It was very clear to me that Camilla was not going to allow the cancer to take her beauty and her girl-ness away. “But I had accepted that I was going to lose my hair. For some reason, that didn’t bother me.” Luckily, her treatment did not cause her hair to fall out. Camilla has very long, thick hair; however she felt that she should possibly tie her hair back at support meetings. Having all of that long, flowing hair in front of people who needed wigs might have been very uncomfortable or unfair to them. “Hair is a big deal,” she said. “Hair is a really, really huge deal. I know. I love my hair.”
The biopsy was the worst part of the whole experience, she says, because she had to be awake for the entire thing. She talked about how frightening it was since there were specific moments when she wasn’t allowed to breathe. Sometimes her mind would wander and then she’d come back to consciousness in a panic over whether or not she’d taken a breath when she wasn’t supposed to. Camilla then added, “They must have thought I was really strong because they left out all the tools and bloody tubes for me to see as I left.”
When explaining her cancer, Camilla told me that it was estrogen-fed, and her doctor called it a garden variety. “Garden variety!” she scoffs. “I’m thinking ‘It’s not a garden variety cancer, it’s MY cancer!’ It got personal. “I had just gone through menopause and cancer was the cherry on top of the menopause sundae! And you can write that down!” she laughed. Also, she explained that she developed a protective gesture where she would hold her arm close to her breast. After the surgery, she felt the constant need to protect that area, and it took some time for her to let that gesture go.
However, despite all the difficulties, she did make one comment that some women might be a little surprised to hear. “I rather enjoyed hot flashes.” She puffed up and showed me her muscles. “I felt powerful. Energized.” After we shared another laugh, which seemed to be a constant theme during this interview, she told me that she was on an estrogen medication that starting tomorrow she would stop taking. She talked with her doctor, and they agreed on a healthy way to proceed. She hopes that being off the medication will help her get her “mojo” back.
Her husband stayed by her side throughout the entire process. The two of them were married in 2010, after Schade was in remission. She leaned in and told me, “This is my third marriage. I have a checkered past.” When I asked if she had any children, her eyes widened. Her inner child, she said, was so strong and loud that having a child herself wasn’t something she would be able to do.
I really do hope that Camilla finds her mojo again, because after her stories about the theatre work she’s done in the past, I can’t help but want to see her do more of it! She’s been in many theatrical productions, one of which was The Vagina Monologues. I told her I was in that show last year as well, and we realized we both had played the same role! Also, she is a playwright and told me about many different plays she has written throughout the years. All of her work sounds extremely creative, challenging, and cathartic. In 2002, before she was even diagnosed, Schade wrote a play called “Am I My Breast Cancer?” She explained how she devised the piece and collaborated with actors as well as dancers to tell a comedic allegory about a woman going through treatment. It amazed me that she wrote this before knowing that cancer was going to affect her life the way it has. Schade nodded at the irony. “I always thought ‘I’m not getting cancer. I couldn’t get cancer.” Camilla went on to tell me there was no real cancer in her family, and she had no known risk factors. “Nowadays it feels like anyone can have it,” she says. “Like it’s something you come down with. ‘I came down with cancer.'”
Camilla described her final surgery in a very theatrical way. When she said goodbye to her husband before they took her to the operating room, she said she really thought she was going to die. A friend had prepared her for what the operating room would look like. Without the warning it would have been that much more difficult and horrifying. As they wheeled her back, she noticed the walls getting plain. The hallway became bigger and wider. Finally when she arrived in in the operating room, it was a cavernous with all of these “alien machines” beaming down at her. All she remembers after that was getting put under anesthesia and then waking up in extreme pain. “Look, I loved that anesthesia. You can knock me out like that whenever you want!”
After the surgery she did follow up radiation therapy in Elmira. Since she went so frequently, she found a social group there in the waiting room, sharing cancer stories while working jigsaw puzzles. However, when her radiation therapy was no longer needed, she felt like she had lost her connection. That’s when she found the Cancer Resource Center. Bob Riter was her first contact. She started to attend meetings at the Cancer Resource Center and found a really strong and supportive community there. The two of us discussed how the center had such a safe and welcoming atmosphere. Camilla told me she tries to go to the weekly Friday brownbag group, as well as participating in CRC events, including the spring retreats, lectures, yoga and walkathon. She described the center as an extraordinary support – creative and open.
As the interview came to a close, Camilla and I talked about meeting again to continue discussing theater. In the future, she hopes to transform her experience into something theatrical and share it through the Cancer Resource Center. It was an absolute pleasure meeting and talking with Camilla, and I expect to see great things from her in the days to come.