Hats Off to HER

Ridge­wood mom fights can­cer and feels com­plete with hat col­lec­tion

201 Health - - Cancer Care - WRIT­TEN BY STEPHANIE AKIN

“Usu­ally, we’re taught that beauty is su­per­fi­cial. I found that find­ing ways to look bet­ter on the out­side made me feel bet­ter on the in­side.”

SHEL­LEY NOLDEN

From the be­gin­ning – when the doc­tors warned her that 10 out of 100 pa­tients with her type of leukemia didn’t make it through the first week and that a pre­vi­ous pa­tient her age who com­plained of a headache one day was dead the next – Shel­ley Nolden kept her fo­cus on the fu­ture.

She started a blog to serve the dual pur­pose of re­leas­ing her emo­tions and up­dat­ing friends and fam­ily about her rapidly chang­ing con­di­tion. In a char­ac­ter­is­tic mix of dry wit and re­lent­less op­ti­mism, she called it “Life’s a B**tch.”

She wrote about her goal of walk­ing on a real beach by the up­com­ing sum­mer. She looked be­yond the in­evitable bald­ing from her treat­ment to the fun she would have do­ing a photo shoot with her baby niece once her hair started to re­turn, the peach fuzz on their scalps adorned with match­ing pink bows. And she wrote about how the hats well-wish­ers kept send­ing would lend her a per­sonal style ri­val­ing any­thing at ei­ther the royal wed­ding or the Kentucky Derby – both of which were held dur­ing Nolden’s treat­ment.

To­day, two years and sev­eral rounds of chemo­ther­apy later, Nolden, 33, cred­its her pos­i­tive out­look with keep­ing her­self whole dur­ing a time when ev­ery­thing in­side her felt bro­ken. But it took a lot of work. She of­ten had to omit ex­pres­sions of bit­ter­ness and frus­tra­tion from the first drafts of her blog posts.

“I wanted to come across as more pos­i­tive, and it ac­tu­ally made me more pos­i­tive,” Nolden says in her Ridge­wood liv­ing room.

Th­ese days, there is lit­tle sign of the dis­ease that ar­rived with­out warn­ing and al­most killed her in the spring of 2011. Nolden’s blond hair, which she dis­cov­ered played a large part in her pre­can­cer iden­tity, has grown back enough for a trendy pixie cut. She wears a pair of straight-leg pants in a bold red, paired with a white top. And, from where she sits, Nolden can see her 3-year-old old daugh­ter’s pas­tel play­house in an ad­ja­cent room.

Her com­pletely put-to­gether ap­pear­ance is no ac­ci­dent. Nolden, who works in busi­ness de­vel­op­ment for an in­vest­ment firm lo­cated in New York City, thought about ap­pear­ances a lot dur­ing her ill­ness.

“Usu­ally, we’re taught that beauty is su­per­fi­cial,” she says. “I found that find­ing ways to look bet­ter on the out­side made me feel bet­ter on the in­side.”

Find­ing small things to fo­cus on, like the hat col­lec­tion that soon grew to more than 40 pieces, helped her get over think­ing that ev­ery­one who looked at her was wor­ried that she was about to die.

And Nolden’s ex­pres­sion of her feel­ings in her blog helped her friends counter the feel­ing that

A 2002 study by the Yale School of Pub­lic Health showed that keep­ing a pos­i­tive out­look on ag­ing ac­tu­ally ex­tended peo­ple’s lives by seven and a half years, a big­ger gain than that demon­strated by peo­ple who main­tained low choles­terol, low blood pres­sures or healthy weights, re­frained from smok­ing and ex­er­cised reg­u­larly.

any­thing they could say or do would be the wrong thing, says Ann Chase, a neigh­bor and friend.

“Some­times in her blog, she’s very frank with the frus­tra­tions she’s hav­ing,” Chase says. “While that might not be some­thing you could do ea­gerly face to face, for her to do it there was not only help­ful to her, but it was help­ful for us.”

Stud­ies have shown that pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes can have mea­sur­able ben­e­fits on how peo­ple re­spond to dis­eases. Among them, a 2002 study by the Yale School of Pub­lic Health showed that keep­ing a pos­i­tive out­look on ag­ing ac­tu­ally ex­tended peo­ple’s lives by seven and a half years, a big­ger gain than that demon­strated by peo­ple who main­tained low choles­terol, low blood pres­sures or healthy weights, re­frained from smok­ing and ex­er­cised reg­u­larly.

A 2012 study funded by the National In­sti­tutes of Health found that pa­tients with coro­nary artery dis­ease, asthma or hy­per­ten­sion who were en­cour­aged to start their days by think­ing of some­thing that made them feel good – such as a sun­set – and taught to re­spond to ob­sta­cles by think­ing of some­thing that made them feel proud were bet­ter at stick­ing to ex­er­cise and med­i­ca­tion regimes.

Iron­i­cally, such find­ings can also cre­ate an im­pos­si­ble stan­dard. The Amer­i­can Can­cer So­ci­ety re­minds pa­tients and their fam­i­lies that emo­tions like frus­tra­tion, anger, fear and anx­i­ety are a nor­mal part of cop­ing with dis­ease – and so is feel­ing pres­sure to main­tain a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude at all times, and feel­ing guilty when that doesn’t hap­pen.

In Nolden’s case, the chal­lenge of fac­ing her ill­ness was com­pounded by grief. She was five months preg­nant when she was di­ag­nosed. Her doc­tors caught the ill­ness af­ter her un­born

daugh­ter’s heart­beat stopped. The can­cer se­cretly rav­aging Nolden’s body had killed her child.

“She was 10 inches long, and passed away hold­ing her other foot to her mouth, as if suck­ing on her toes,” Nolden wrote in her blog.

Af­ter that, Nolden faced a har­row­ing week dur­ing which her doc­tors couldn’t fig­ure out what was wrong with her blood or her un­con­trol­lably swelling right eye. Her di­ag­no­sis was the be­gin­ning of a 40-day stay in the hos­pi­tal, dur­ing which her vis­its with her sur­viv­ing daugh­ter were limited be­cause of hos­pi­tal rules re­strict­ing pa­tient ex­po­sure to chil­dren.

In spite of ev­ery­thing she had to worry about, Nolden says, she couldn’t help feel­ing self-con­scious about her new ap­pear­ance. She showed the hos­pi­tal staff her wed­ding photo so they would know what she looked like when she wasn’t fight­ing for her life.

Af­ter she went home, Nolden strug­gled to find ways to feel nor­mal again. When she put on a long, blond wig – a gift from a friend who also had bat­tled can­cer – her daugh­ter de­manded she take it off. “It didn’t look like me,” Nolden says. Af­ter she no­ticed a girl of about 7 trail­ing her at the gro­cery store, Nolden de­cided to start wear­ing hats. And she found that they helped her main­tain a small sense of nor­malcy. She col­lected all styles – a red-and-blue seer­sucker sun­hat, a lacy cloche with a feather, a blue batik with sil­ver stitch­ing and a nar­row brim. She wore them to the of­fice. The whole fam­ily wore match­ing hats for pho­tos.

Nolden still un­der­goes main­te­nance chemo­ther­apy, but she ex­pects to fin­ish her last round in the fall. As a cel­e­bra­tion of her re­cov­ery, she booked a photo shoot with the Magique Stu­dio in Para­mus. She hoped to use the pic­tures, show­cas­ing out­fits de­signed around her fa­vorite hats, to show other women strug­gling with can­cer that they can be beau­ti­ful and that it’s OK to think about ac­ces­soriz­ing even as they fight their dis­ease. “Own that hat!” she jokes. But re­cently, Nolden ex­pe­ri­enced a more per­sonal sign that she is get­ting bet­ter. Af­ter months of silently tol­er­at­ing the hat col­lec­tion as it en­croached slowly upon his half of the closet, her hus­band, Rob, made a small but monumental re­quest. It’s time, he told her. Put away those hats.

As a cel­e­bra­tion of her re­cov­ery, she booked a photo shoot with Magique Stu­dios in Para­mus. She hoped to use the pic­tures [shown through­out this fea­ture], show­cas­ing out­fits de­signed around her fa­vorite hats, to show other women strug­gling with can­cer that they can be beau­ti­ful and that it’s OK to think about ac­ces­soriz­ing even as they fight their dis­ease.

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