Lori Dixon: Losing Hair, Gaining Love

Last April, Lori Dixon learned she had breast cancer. Since then, she has had to face her fears and find the fortitude to battle this disease.

"It's a big thing to have somebody say, 'Oh by the way, I have breast cancer and this is what we need to do to fix it.' You block it out, you really do," Dixon says in The Early Show's Cancer Connection series.

Dixon had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and surrounding tissue - enough tissue to ensure that a "clear margin" around the tumor tested negative for cancer. Most experts agree this method, when combined with radiation, is as effective as a mastectomy.

"And I told them that if they didn't think they could get the clear margin that I didn't want to mess around with it," she says.

It took two surgeries to get the desired "clear margins." The next step, considered by most patients to be the toughest part of cancer treatment, was chemotherapy, to kill any cancer cells left behind.

"This is the only subspecialty of medicine where you have to make the patient sick in order to make them well," says oncologist Dr. Eric Bonnem.

"It was hard, it was really hard because it's basically them putting poison into your body to kill everything that's in there," Dixon says.

And it causes a side-effect that women dread the most.

"I was coming home one day and the wind was blowing and I put my hand through my hair and had a bunch of hair on my hand and said, 'That's it. I'm not going to do that any more,'" Dixon says.

"So I just cut it off for her," says her husband George Dixon.
"I mean it was kind of a hard thing to do, it really was, and then to see her completely bald."

Lori Dixon remembers, "He kept saying, 'You don't look that bad; you don't look that bad.'"

George denies he was just trying to make her feel better: "It really didn't look that bad, without her having hair," he adds.

Lori Dixon's response to being bald, was, well different. She wore all sorts of funny hats and wigs.

"That was her way of controlling the situation," notes Dr. Bonnem.

After four chemotherapy treatments, she faced six weeks of radiation to target remaining cancer cells in her breast and lymph nodes. Radiation beams are precisely angled to protect her lungs.

"Everything revolves around the cancer, what you've got to do, when you've got to be, losing time at work because I have to come to meetings, going to the doctors…You just, I just want my life back," Lori Dixon says.

Dr. Bonnem explains, "They want to know how are they going to get through this, what are the side effects, how are they going to take care of their kids? Are they going to be able to go to work?"

Emotional well-being is a critical factor to beating cancer odds, so Dr. Bonnem directed Lori Dixon to the Internet. While on the breastcancer.org Web site, she met Marci Waldman and they became an instant pen-pals. The two shared their fears, and concerns.

"Marci and I are about five days apart in all our treatments and everything. It makes a big difference when you know that there is somebody that is so close to what you're going through," says Lori Dixon.

Waldman says Lori didn't have as much chemo as she did, "so she's finished with her radiation.

"But that's also good for me, because now she can tell me what to expect. And this is what you get out of it. Their life experiences become your life experiences."

The change in Lori Dixon after she began corresponding wiht Waldman was immediate.

"I noticed a big difference in her attitude, she kind of wasn't feeling so much down in the dumps," says George Dixon.

Because cancer news is so disconcerting, Dr. Bonnem urges all patients to take notes and bring a buddy to their appointments.

"They don't hear half of what you say, even a third of what you say," he says.

"They told me how many treatments I would have for the chemotherapy and I heard 12. And it was 12 weeks total, but only four treatments," Lori Dixon says. Her husband helped her get it right.

"He was the one that would say to me, 'No, no, no, this is what we heard. This is what they said. This is what we're doing,'" Lori Dixon says about her husband.

This crisis could have torn them apart. But George Dixon says it helped him realize how much of a friend she is to him. "Everything she really is to me and how much we kind of really depend on each other," he says.

Lori Dixon says "after awhile, sometimes you take things for granted and everything, and when this all started, I realized how strong he was and how much he loved me."

With the help of her "team" - doctors, family and friends and her Internet cyber-sisters - Lori Dixon is finding the way to laugh again.

"And he calls me porcupine head you know," Lori Dixon says laughing. "And you have to do what you have to do but to be able to laugh at it and have a good attitude about it is a good thing."

On Wednesday, The Cancer Connection focuses on another member of Waldman's online support system.