Breast Cancer Awareness: Wendy Catlin knocking the daylights out of disease

What caught Wendy Catlin’s eye, when she walked into the back-to-school assembly, was the splash of color.

“It was a sea of pink,” the Westside Intermediate School accounting associate said.

Teachers and fellow employees were sporting the color on shirts, forming a strong army in a dainty hue, supporting her battle against breast cancer.

Her voice broke when she remembered the day.

“Holly Curtis, who works with me, had sent a countywide e-mail and she sold a lot of shirts. Our superintendent, Dr. Fredericksen, was there that day. And then, they opened the curtains on the stage, and there stood my whole family. It’s a day I will never forget. That’s the day I started pushing through this disease,” the 53-year-old mother of two said.

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As soon as she learned she had cancer, Catlin telephoned the school principal, Jason Miller.

“Immediately, he said, ‘We’re going to get through this.’ He’s wonderful,” Catlin said, praising him for moving her into a separate office away from the common area where she was positioned, to protect her from swirling cold and flu germs, since chemotherapy can comprise the immune system.

The building manager, Cliff Lawrence, and IT specialist John Mills handled details.

“And, there were pink boxing gloves on my door,” said Catlin, who tells her story with enthusiasm.

Every day, since she felt the first lump in June, she’s been using those boxing gloves, figuratively, to knock the daylights out of breast cancer.

Her doctor hoped what she found was just a cyst, but Mercy Medical Center specialists in Baltimore confirmed cancer. There are two lumps in one breast and one in the other.  First, Catlin would have chemotherapy, then, in January, a double mastectomy.

Since Aug. 13, she’s been having weekly treatments, that, thankfully, haven’t made her sick.

“All the people I have supporting me? I have to push through this. I don’t want to let these people down. They are so wonderful,” she said.

Students at the school, about 500 in grades two to five, haven’t looked at her any differently, even though she wears scarves to cover her baldness, and can’t get close enough to hug them.

“I tell them I can high five, though. They are always fist pumping, always sending me sweet little notes. There’s a pink tree in the office, with little note cards. The kids sign little pink pieces of paper. I take them all with me every Thursday when I’m having treatments. At first, I was there eight hours. Now I’m on a less harsh combination, so I’m there five hours at a time. I’ll be on that until Dec. 10,” she explained.

Parents of the students, too, have been supportive, giving her gift cards for gas and sandwich shops to use on her way to and from Baltimore.

“Holly Curtis, she’s an office associate, a secretary in the front office. She and I have worked together 11 years. She started this campaign for me. I never thought they would do anything like this. I knew the office staff would do something, because we are like a family here. We spend a lot of time with each other. What I didn’t expect was the parents. The moms and dads are wonderful. These children are wonderful.

“The little ones tell me, ‘I prayed for you last night.  ‘I said my prayers’ or ‘My mom-mom doesn’t have hair like you,’” she said.

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Catlin’s sisters, Janet Fox and Dee Calloway, fiancé Ed Hamblin, sons Brandon and Nathan and grandchildren, are her cornerstones.

Fox and Calloway accompany her to treatments, wearing signature pink shirts with those boxing gloves and the words “Wendy’s

Warriors.” Catlin’s shirt has the words, “ I Am Wendy.”

“Ed has been wonderful. My sons are great. I knew I would have support from my family. I didn’t know I would have support from the community and the children and the board of education.

“What they are doing for me, they have no idea. It keeps me going. I’m not letting these people down. I’m not letting these co-workers down. I’m not letting these children down,” said Catlin, who has worked for the board of education 27 years.

“This has changed me. It humbles you. It will make you learn what’s important in life and what’s not.

“I always thought my hair was important. It had to be perfect. That was something everybody always commented on. ‘Your hair. Your hair is so beautiful.’ The first thing I ever asked the doctor was, ‘Am, I going to lose my hair?’ That’s how vain I was.

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“Now Ed calls me his little bald-headed woman. He said, ‘I didn’t fall in love with your hair. I fell in love with you,’” she said.

The hair she cherished “fell out in gobs” after chemotherapy started.

Catlin asked her stylist to shave her head, and as she did, they managed to find humor in the situation and laughed together.

“I throw a cap on or I wear a scarf. My hair’s going to grow back. My eyelashes are going to grow back, but my tumors aren’t,” she said, her voice strong and determined.

“And that’s what I don’t want growing back.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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