Altruist and Cancer Warrior

By Candice Wagener | Photographed By Kaia Calhoun

In 2017, more than 250,000 women are expected to hear the words “you have breast cancer” for the first time. For many, this diagnosis will be followed by a whirlwind of emotions including fear, anger and sadness. Most would be hard-pressed to find a positive spin in this situation, but Colleen Hayes, who was diagnosed this past spring, regularly thinks about how lucky she is.

In an email for coworkers, that also became a Facebook post for friends, Hayes followed up her cancer reveal with “Ain’t that a bitch??!!!?! It sure is. But you know what is not a bitch? Having health insurance, and access to some of the best health care around.”

Hayes is something of a local celebrity. Between her full-time position as dual coordinator for the Schools of Hope and after-school program at Whitehorse Middle School, a side job bartending at Genna’s, and board positions at both the Marquette Neighborhood Association and the Wil-Mar Center, she’s been all around the community, giving back in any way she can.

“She’s always doing something. She’s always out and about,” says Hayes’ longtime friend and colleague, Amy Clements. “Everyone totally knows who Colleen is; she leaves a lasting impression.”

I, too, get the sense I have already met Hayes when we connect on the first day of school at Whitehorse. She clearly has established relationships with multitudes of staff and students. She is the kind of presence that middle schoolers need—a delicate balance of authority figure and friend.

Hayes starts off the school year with a new feature that doesn’t go unnoticed. She is completely bald from the chemotherapy treatments she started on the last day of school in June. As kids greet her with hugs, handshakes and hellos, many of them raise their eyes to the top of her head. Some are even bold enough to ask her why she shaved. Hayes is quick to give an honest explanation.

“I got sick this summer, and the medicine they gave me to make me better made all my hair fall out.”

And most kids are familiar with the terms “chemotherapy” and “cancer” to understand.

Last spring, Hayes says, she went in for her annual exam, about a year overdue. Looking back, she probably felt something before that, but didn’t give it much notice. Ten years earlier, she had both breasts biopsied because of lumps, which ended up being fibrous tissue. “As my mother liked to say ‘you just have lumpy tits’,” Hayes quips.

Several mammograms and a biopsy later, a nurse called Hayes at work and told her she had an atypical papillary lesion, not benign but not cancer. “Sounds like purgatory,” thought Hayes, who attended 13 years of Catholic school in the Chicago suburbs. Most people told her not to worry, so she didn’t.

Surgery revealed there was more, however. When all was said and done, Hayes received a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, meaning the tumor cells lack estrogen, progesterone, or HER2 receptors and will not respond to traditional hormone therapy. It also tends to be more aggressive and likely to spread.

Receiving her diagnosis on April 30th, she promptly had her lymph nodes removed in May, the same time she sent the aforementioned email/Facebook post to coworkers and friends, stressing that she wanted to wait to tell students the following school year. She would miss chaperoning her third 8th grade bus trip to Washington, D.C., but she still managed to make it to send-off with goodie bags she put together for the students, even though she had endured her first chemo just a few days before.

“She takes care of others. I know that she takes care of herself, too, but she really, really thinks about others,” says Clements, adding that Hayes brought a box of Batch Bakehouse treats to her chemo appointment for the staff “because their job is so hard.”

And Hayes cannot sing enough praises of the entire staff at the UW Health Carbone Cancer Center and their Breast Center, and how fortunate she feels to live just a few miles away from a world-class research hospital. True to her altruistic way, she is quick to mention all the other patients she knows that have to make travel arrangements for treatments. She is continually counting her other blessings: having health insurance and affordable copays, huge support from family, including her mother, sister and aunt who frequently made the trek from Chicago to help out, not having dependents to take care of in the throes of chemo, and having the summer off for treatments.

“With Colleen, she takes it in stride,” says Clements. “She’s willing to put upon people, but, again she’s pretty independent. She kind of wears that on her sleeve, even in cancer.”

Independent, but incredibly selfless. She sums it up beautifully, in the final words of her letter: “Okay, I love you all. Things are going to be fine, shitty at times, but fine. Be good to each other. Please.”

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