Breast cancer talismans bring smiles, ease pain

Here’s a story by Karen Croke that ran in the Life & Style section on Oct. 11. Photos by Tania Savayan.

Call them good luck charms, or talismans, or simply smile inducers on the darkest of days, but for those facing treatment for breast cancer, sometimes the simplest things make all the difference.

For Bonnie Draeger, Hope and Grace come in handy. While recovering from bilateral breast cancer, Draeger, the author of “When Cancer Strikes A Friend,” (Skyhorse), carried a set of two pink teddy bears given to her by a friend named Karen.

“The first was named ‘Hope’ and she arrived shortly after my initial diagnosis,” says Draeger, a long-time White Plains resident, who had the bears along at a recent visit to the Dickstein Cancer Center. “When a second cancer was discovered a month later, Karen gave me a second bear that I named ‘Grace’ as I would need a great deal of grace to handle two different breast cancers at once,” she says.

Her surgeon asked if Draeger wanted to take the bears into surgery with her. She declined, although at a crucial moment, she says, “they did remind me to face cancer with hope and grace each and every day throughout my recovery.”

Rica Mendes decorated her yard with colorful evil-eye charms. She placed them in the branches of a tree, she says, for protection and because it reminded her of a time when she lived in Israel. Mendes, of South Salem, has blogged for The Journal News about her cancer battle and treatment, and the fact that her mom was recently diagnosed as well.

“It felt like when no one else was, there somebody was watching my back and looking over me,” she says of the charms. “Cancer can be a very solo experience. Knowing that I literally had God’s eyes watching over me and warding off evil just brought a sense of calm.”

In a recent Twitter chat, Mendes also mentioned a special blanket: Her cousin’s adopted mom is a cancer survivor who was given a yellow fleece blanket to use during chemo.

She gave the blanket to a friend after she was done. That friend put a pin on it. It’s been passed around all over.

“Now, I’ve put a Livestrong pin on it and I’m going to give it to my mom to use while she goes through radiation,” Mendes says. “The blanket represented a virtual hug. It’s also piece of living history because each pin represents another person who went through a similar experience so you immediately felt that sense of of community.”

For Susan Reif of Tuxedo, lucky charms came in abundant supply and one was available whenever she needed it while she was undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery for an extremely aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer.

“For me, there was no one thing; rather, there were people,” she says. “What kept me feeling safe was the fact that I never had to go to a chemo treatment, test, or doctor’s appointment by myself. I always had a loved one (or two or more) with me, by my side.”

Talismans can have practical, as was a spiritual value too, as Draeger can attest: For almost a year, she carried the soundtrack CD of “The Perfect Storm,” with her. “I would play it over and over while waiting to go into the operating room, and on the long trips to and from the hospital,” she says.

In between surgeries she says she walked a little farther each day spurred on by the music and the message of courage it conveyed. “I was facing a ‘perfect storm’ of my own,” she says. “And as a former musician, I turned to music as my talisman.”

Heather Salerno

Special writer Heather Salerno covers arts, entertainment and pop culture for and The Journal News. Heather regularly posts on ABC's hit show "Lost," as well as other television-related news.