Hats Off to HER
Ridgewood mom fights cancer and feels complete with hat collection
“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.”
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.