Wearing costumes to chemo puts some fun into a scary journey


  • Seniors
  • Monday, 28 Oct 2019

Mary Stommel surrounded by flowers, at her home in Virginia Beach.

Blustery winds blew Queen B through the lobby doors recently, leaving her wings askew.

Queen B – Mary Stommel – took a moment in the foyer of Virginia Oncology Associates’ Norfolk office to smooth out the day’s look: a glittery, gold crown. Gold-coloured lipstick. A gold-and-black striped dress billowing over shiny gold leggings that capped gold flat shoes.“Nice costume,” murmured a woman entering behind Queen B.

Michelle Englar, the practice administrator, smiled when she saw Stommel. Everyone in the building looks forward to Stommel’s weekly visits and her costumes.

“You look beautiful, as always,” Englar said, giving Stommel a hug.

Stommel has been a patient for two years following her ovarian cancer diagnosis.

On this particular day, she was scheduled to have her routine chemotherapy infusion, but she learned the week before that the meds weren’t stopping the tumours that were now in her abdomen.

She wasn’t going to have any more chemotherapy, Stommel told Englar. She was going to rely on another option.

“I’m not here to say goodbye,” Stommel said, with a smile and an adjustment of her wings. “I’m here to say my ‘see-you-laters’.”

Cancer
Mary Stommel, dressed as a Queen B, says "see you later" and "thanks" to her nurse, Jan Jinright, at her doctor's office at Virginia Oncology Associates in Norfolk, Virginia, the United States.

To raise her spirits and those around her, after the diagnosis two years ago, she wore various costumes and spread positive messages while getting treatment. She recently found out her cancer is no longer responding to the chemotherapy, and she will no longer be receiving treatment. Stommel remains positive and is guided by her faith.

Stommel, 69, calls herself the shiest person on the planet except when it comes to her faith and her humour. Those are two things cancer hasn’t taken away.

She grew up in the middle of a close but large family and felt she had to be funny to stick out. She liked laughing at herself, too.

Soon after one of her sisters, Kathy, died in 2015, Stommel was looking for a pick-me-up when she took her walks through her Virginia Beach neighbourhood. She turned to a closet bulging with Halloween costumes that she’d collected during years of trick-or-treating with her grandkids.

Stommel strolled as princesses, cats and dogs. People smiled, waved and stopped her to take photos.

One time she put on a wig, white button-down shirt, necktie and sweater to dress as everybody’s favourite neighbour, Mister Rogers. Other walkers thought her a little too weird and crossed the road.

“Even the dogs ran,” said her husband, John. Stommel still doubles over in laughter when she thinks about it.

Two of her daughters, Brandi Zenzel and Chastin Scharfe, said they were stunned as they saw their introverted mother willingly become the centre of attention.

“I thought, ‘Who is this woman?’” Scharfe said. She added: “I’m just glad that she started it after we graduated from high school.”

But both see it as an extension of their mother’s quiet but vibrant spirit, a colourful personification of her faith. “She is amazing,” Zenzel said.

The cancer diagnosis in spring 2017 would be a longer, scarier walk but one with others who would also be losing their hair, retching after chemo, people who Lord knows could use a laugh.

“If I had to go somewhere depressing,” Stommel said recently at home, “why not make it fun?”

Cancer
Supergirl was the first costume that Mary Stommel wore to treatment in 2017.

For her first treatment that April, Stommel dressed as Supergirl – a blue dress with the red “S” splayed across her chest, blue Supergirl knee socks and red-and-white sneakers.

She posed for a photo on her porch with a Bible in her hand. She started posting photos on Facebook, updating family and friends, with an inspirational message tied to her costume.

In late July, she put on the black, red and yellow costume of The Incredibles, a Disney cartoon superhero family.

On Facebook she wrote: “I have only four chemo treatments left and while this is definitely not the path I would have chosen, it has been ‘incredible’ because of God’s grace and your support.”

In February 2018, she wore her favourite ensemble, a black and red gown for Alice In Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts. Stommel walked around denouncing her cancer with cries of, “Off with the Devil’s head!”

People started sending her costumes. She got friend requests from strangers.

“People have friended me for my positivity,” Stommel said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

By November 2018, her body scans were clear and showing no signs of cancer.

Cancer
Mary Stommel surrounded by flowers, at her home in Virginia Beach.

In January this year, she wore a fuzzy, snowflake hairband, snowflake glasses, snowflake-patterned tights and a poofy, sparkling skirt that left glitter on the doctor’s examination table. She wrote to her Facebook followers: “No two snowflakes are alike, they are unique. God said in Psalms 139:14, ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’.

“The doctor said that I don’t need scans again for six months. I’m pretty sure he thinks I am a flake.”

By the summer, however, she dressed up as a ladybug with red and black antennae, a ladybug T-shirt and a red skirt with black polka dots.

“Well, I wanted to find out what was bugging me and unfortunately the pet scans showed cancerous tumours in my belly,” she wrote.

On Oct 1, she was a shimmering pink and blue mermaid when she got the prognosis she didn’t want to hear.

“This course of chemo has not exactly gone swimmingly,” she wrote.

The news was freeing, though, Stommel said recently at her home, a few days before her last appointment.

She is left with allowing faith to heal her. Without the chemicals in her body, she feels better. Her appetite is coming back; she gained three pounds in a week. Her prognosis gives her two to six months, yet she is certain she will be dancing on a beach in Mexico on Jan 3, her 50th wedding anniversary, surrounded by family.

“I tell people that I’m in faith because God has a better plan. You have to have hope,” she said. “You lose nothing by having hope.”

Queen B – meaning believer, bold and brave – walked into the second-floor infusion room on a recent Tuesday morning and immediately attracted a swarm of admirers. Medical assistant Jennifer Weddle was the first to snag her into a hug.

“Look at you!” she gasped. “That’s the best costume ever!”

Nurse Jan Jinright rounded a corner of reclining chairs expecting Stommel to plop into one for her chemotherapy.

Stommel took her hands and smiled. It wasn’t an option anymore, she told her. Stommel assured her she was happy with relying on prayer.

The two embraced tightly for several long moments. Weddle, who sat at her nearby desk, dabbed a tissue to her eyes.

A patient walked by, smiling at Stommel, and said, “She looks like a beautiful butterfly.”

Jinright reminded her that she needed to come in within a month to have the infusion port in her chest flushed.

Word circulated among the office that Queen B was there. Several people came out for a peek. One averted her tear-filled eyes as Stommel told her why she wasn’t staying.

“You all are going to be shocked when I come back in here, and I am,” Stommel said out loud, flexing her thin arms, “so buff.”

After a few minutes, Stommel was ready to go. She stopped and chatted with another patient who had just arrived and was admiring her costume.

Stommel asked the patient for her name. Stommel said she would include it in her daily prayers.

Then, Queen B turned to leave, wings now lopsided from all of the hugs, and declared: “I’m gonna buzz outta here!” – Tribune News Service/The Virginian-Pilot


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