Natalie Bender isn’t allowed to shave her head. Even though she’s already losing clumps of hair to the chemotherapy, even though she wants it all to be gone – her doctors told her no. The irregular bumps and stitches make it an unnecessary danger. But Natalie will get over it. She tries not to worry about what she doesn’t have control over, she tries to enjoy what she has.
Today, Natalie gets to shave her pastor’s head for a benefit event. And that’s good enough for her.
“I’ve never done this before,” she yells at the church dining hall with an energy in her voice. “I hope I don’t cut him!”
As she runs the electric razor through the pastor’s thinning scalp line, the group of onlookers erupt in laughter. One guy yells that he looks like “Crusty The Clown” from the Simpsons with his spotty, frizzed hair. Another tells him that it looks good and he should keep it. Natalie smiles from ear to ear.
She feels that being around others and laughing helps taper the aching pain in her left hand. It helps to bring clarity to the blurry vision masking her eyes. It lessens the stress of walking. It weakens her most painful headaches. It takes her mind off of her biggest challenge yet: a malignant mass on her brain stem.
She may have no control over her sickness, but Natalie chooses to try to find the good in life. Her pastor sees it everyday.
“Choice plays a big part in our lives. We can choose to live in hell and be down and make this world and our life hell, or we can choose to create heaven on earth,” Natalie’s pastor Clint Reine said. “That’s what she does, she makes that fundamental choice to see the good and to live in heaven. She doesn’t want to live in hell.”
* * *
Natalie was supposed to start school in the fall. She graduated from East last year and was set to go to Graceland University, majoring in secondary education with a focus on history. But the cancer has grounded her. For at least the next six months, Natalie is going to be receiving treatment in Kansas City; living at home as she fights her disease.
“I think she was sad [about college], but she didn’t really show it,” her mom DeAnn Bender said. “She just said ‘something I get to look forward to until next year’ and that’s kind of how we’ve approached it.”
Natalie has stage four medulloblastoma. She has an embryonic tumor on her brain that is taking control of her body. The malignant mass blurs her vision. It causes her body to be sore. Sometimes it numbs her left hand.
But it was the blurred eyesight that initially warned her something was wrong.
“I woke up and I had to go to work and it was just, like, blurry vision–I could only see so far,” Natalie said. “And I said to my mom ‘mom, I can’t see anything!’ and she was like ‘eh, you’ll be fine.’”
She went into work at The Learning Tree that day. The computer was hard to see and helping customers was more of a chore than usual, but Natalie still got to wrap presents. Wrapping gifts was the one thing that gave her joy at her job; she loved making something pretty for someone else. The blurred sight was an inconvenience, but she hoped it would be gone soon.
On June 17, 2011 Natalie thought that it was just whiplash.
That’s the conclusion she came to. After all, she had just been tubing for the first time the previous day. It would be understandable if she was still feeling the effects. With some Tylenol, Natalie felt confident that the problems would disappear. But they didn’t.
Four days after she initially noticed the problems with her vision, she was on her way to the hospital. As she rode in the car next to her mother who remained skeptical, she felt the weight of the unknown. She didn’t know whether she had a diagnosed illness, or if she really just had whiplash. But she was on edge.
When they arrived at the hospital, the doctor walked up to Natalie and shook her hand. She remembers him being very personable, very friendly. She liked that. He took her into his office and told her to sit down. He shone a light in her eyes. He had her do the “drunk walk.” At the end of the routine procedure, his voice slowed down. Natalie felt like he was hiding concern.
He told them they needed to get a CT scan to check her brain. Nothing more, nothing less. He explained that it was right across the street and they could have results in under thirty minutes. So they walked to the other hospital wing and waited. Then they did the scan. More waiting. Then an MRI scan, too.
To Natalie all the tests were just affirming the inevitable: something was seriously wrong. The next day when she was called back to the hospital the doctor told her the news. He looked her right in the eyes and told her that she had a cancerous mass on her brain stem.
On June 21, 2011 Natalie learned that she had stage four cancer.
“Yeah, it hit me,” Natalie said. “But then again, what fun would it have been if it was only stage one?”
* * *
Natalie’s always been naturally happy.
Growing up, her family called her the “peacemaker.” Her two older sisters usually butted heads over anything and everything, but Natalie liked to keep the peace. Her cheery and upbeat disposition usually ended any argument on the spot; her smile always made them question why they were fighting.
Natalie has had this mindset for as long as she can remember. She learned it from her late grandmother, she says. She saw her quiet wisdom as they methodically put together 1000 piece puzzles together. She admired her outlook; she saw her positivity up until she suffered from a stroke. Her grandma taught her to see life a different way.
“She kind of just lived life no matter what,” Natalie said. “She didn’t really care what was happening around her.”
But Natalie’s cancer doesn’t make it easy to maintain faith. It has tested her. There’s the hour long radiation sessions where the left half of her face can become numb by the end. The surgeries to put in “ports” on her body. The chemotherapy which cause her to lose her hair and feel weak. The physical toll on her body has been extensive, but Natalie’s kept her inherent cheeriness.
Her optimism has helped her fight the disease.
“[The optimism] kind of made it easier to say that I have no control over the situation,” Natalie said. “So I kind of just have to do it and kick its butt and be done.”
Natalie relies on the little things. The parts of the day that keep her going. She loves talking to the nurses. They walk around the ICU and Natalie likes to tag along. She says it keeps her occupied. Natalie’s said she’s always been a good listener.
When Natalie’s friends come into the hospital, she always tries to ask about them. Reine finds it shocking that she can always flip the conversation around. He may come to her with sympathy, but she will fire back and ask him how he’s doing.
“She’s not dodging the question,” Reine said. “She is that way, and that’s how she gets her energy is by being there for others. By taking care of people.”
Reine remembers one story from the hospital more than any other. Natalie was just coming out of brain surgery and her face was scrunched; she was still under a lot of drugs. She had tubes in her mouth for oxygen. Her hands were tied down in case she tried to pull them out.
As Natalie’s mom and dad looked at her, Natalie’s hands started to move slightly. They couldn’t go very far but just enough. She started to twist them into a shape and then she tried to lift them up over her body but they couldn’t quite make it.
DeAnn instantly knew what Natalie was trying to say. She had known sign language to a certain degree and knew that Natalie had learned some in Kindergarten. DeAnn had been at the hospital for eleven hours because of the surgery; she was tired.
It was clear what Natalie was signing: “Mom, Go Home.”
* * *
When Natalie is alone, she prays. She says it’s constant. If a quiet time arises during the day, she talks to God. She feels like its an escape from the realities of her disease. She feels like it helps her get away from all the commotion in the world.
“I just sit and talk,” Natalie says. “And than If I have time, I’ll just sit and listen.”
Natalie has a lot to pray about. First off, she is scared. The daunting future is what frightens her the most. Over the next few months, she knows that she is going to get worse. As her doctors bump her up to a more aggressive chemotherapy, she is going to feel the effects. Her stomach will be queasy. She will feel fatigued.
Natalie doesn’t like to dwell on her disease, though. She says she treats the hospital like a purple ball that she can put in the corner and not think about until she has to. Always sitting there but not used until necessary. She rarely likes to talk about her cancer and doesn’t even like the mention of its name. She wishes it could just be a thing of the past.
“I don’t get to just stop cause it sucks, that’s not how this works unfortunately,” Natalie said. “I would’ve stopped a long time ago.”
But Natalie doesn’t want this disease to own her. She says she can’t let this one moment define her life. A few weeks ago, she enrolled for classes for Johnson County Community College Online. She wants to be a teacher.
Her goal in life is to work as an educator in the inner city. She wants to help out those less fortunate than herself. She wants to listen to their ideas. It’s a goal that keeps her motivated every day of her cancer.
She knows that in the near future her sickness is going to get worse. She says that the scariest part of all of this is the knowledge that one day she may wake up and feel like she doesn’t want to put in any more effort.
But then Natalie thinks back to what her doctor said when she first asked him the odds. He told her that it was 0 or 100 percent depending on how you look at it.
And Natalie’s been 100 percent the whole way.
* * *
Natalie watches as clumps of black hair fall to the ground.
By now, Reine is almost completely bald. Patches of dark hair remain on the side; just a little more and it will all be gone. She sits, now, watching as a male member from her church carries out the final steps. He runs the electric razor through one final time.
Natalie can’t help but smile.
She doesn’t know what’s going to happen down the road. Right now, she is beating her cancer. She is bending the odds. Her doctor says that she now has an 80 percent chance of being cancer free in five years. Her condition has steadily gotten better since she found out two and a half months ago. The doctors think it has something to with her attitude.
Natalie still has months of treatment ahead of her. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen or if her condition will get worse, but she’s not trying to think too far ahead. She just wants to get the most out of every day.
Today, she is watching as her pastor and youth director get their heads clean-shaven. As she sits in the church, she feels optimistic about the future.
“It’s a new day, I get to live another day,” Natalie said. “And that’s exciting.”