Sunday, November 21, 2010

Johannah's Lazy Eye

How many people do you meet who are two-time cancer survivors the first bout 25 years ago. And remember when the “Big C” was a stigma you carried like a scarlet A?

Roxanne Birney, a bubbly and gregarious 54-year-old, has those memories burned into her brain.

She can flash back to when people were afraid to come near her or talk about her diagnosis — Hodgkins disease — and when, as a young girl of 24, she felt like a leper or an AIDS patient of a few years back.

Discrimination. Fear. She was shunned. Even her parents couldn’t deal with the diagnosis, despite her aunt having suffered the same condition.

I, too, remember when cancer was a dirty word, when the fear was so overwhelming and the uncertainty so strong that people didn’t know how to react in the presence of someone with that diagnosis.

Yet, Birney survived a horrendous year of chemotherapy and radiation in her youth with the same positivity she displays today. “I knew my cancer was curable,” she says between bites of a gourmet salad at the Palm Beach Yacht Club where her husband, Kevin, is dining room captain and assistant maitre d’.

At one point during her first cancer battle, she lived in a “House of Hope” with 79 other cancer patients. She is, to the best of her knowledge, the only survivor of the group.

When she was hit with her second cancer diagnosis 10 years ago — a tumor on a vocal chord that felt like a knife when she spoke — she just knew she wasn’t going to die. “I knew in my heart there must be a purpose, why I was the only survivor of 80 people. It gives you a purpose-driven life. I couldn’t talk about it until five years ago without crying.”

Part of that purpose is to tell her story, to excel at public speaking as an active member of several Toastmasters clubs, and to help children have the confidence to speak publicly. “A lot of children aren’t speaking anymore. I tell them to stop texting and start speaking. Literacy is what I’m into.”

It is this passion that led her to self-publish a book. But it’s not about her battles with cancer. It’s about her daughter, Johannah, and her challenges with a “lazy eye” — amblyopia — when the 20-year-old was about six.

“When she was two, her eyes started crossing,” Birney remembers. “I recognized it right away, since my younger sister had it. Johannah went through surgery and wore special glasses.”

The child was OK with the glasses, but like many youngsters, being different didn’t go unnoticed. Classmates, maybe curious about her or maybe just vicious, would pull her glasses off her face, sometimes breaking them and hurting Johannah in the process.

This prompted Birney to write a child’s book about being different and how other children should cultivate compassion for those who are. Johannah’s Lazy Eye (which is available at and is filled with colorful drawings of young children learning this lesson.

Birney’s writing and baking — her carrot cake is now available at the West Palm Beach GreenMarket — helped her during the period after her tumor surgery when she couldn’t talk comfortably. “I had to reinvent myself,” she says simply.

And she is doing that with the energy that a person who has gotten reprieves from cancer is fueled by. There is another upside: Johannah can now see that, like her mother, suffering through illness or disability can make you stronger. “It helped me develop a strong personality and confidence because I had to let rude and hurtful remarks and actions roll off me,” she says.

And being positive in the face of cancer and strong in the face of bullying are strengths worth sharing.

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