Breast cancer survivor writes of humor found in illness

By Josette Keelor

WINCHESTER — Breast cancer is a scary diagnosis, but survivor Janet Sheppard Kelleher has learned to view the “Big C” as a gift wrapped in ugly paper.

Now 61, the South Carolina resident recently remembered receiving her diagnosis at age 47.

“It is the worst,” she said. “The diagnosis is very tough.”

But eventually, she came to another conclusion.

At a recent reading and book signing at Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury, she told residents and other community members how she maintained her sense of humor during one of the darkest times of her life.

Hospitalized twice during her chemotherapy treatments, she remembered, “I could become bitter or better from that experience.”

Instead, she said, “I needed to focus on the positive.”

“If you can learn to laugh at yourself, your priorities change, and [it’s] just easier to deal with the ups and downs of battling cancer,” she later explained.

Following the Oct. 17 release of her first book, “Big C, little ta-ta: Kicking Breast Cancer’s Butt in 7 Humorous Stories,” by Kelleher’s Kaleidoscope LLC, she said she wants to infect readers with a positive attitude to carry them through their own life challenges.

“What’s good about chemo?” she asked the audience. “In a word, baldness.”

“Even though your eyes may be dull, your head still shines,” she said.

Early morning hair care and last-minute Halloween costumes are a snap.

“You can put on big hoop earrings and go as Mr. Clean, just like that,” she said.

Her sister-in-law Margie Sheppard, a resident at Westminster-Canterbury, recalled how in a favorite family photo, her late husband George Sheppard posed with Kelleher to show off their matching bald heads.

“She survived just by never giving up, and now she encourages the rest of the world to do that,” Sheppard said.

Kelleher’s words also struck a chord with audience member and breast cancer survivor Marlene Kolstad of Winchester.

“I think what helps is your friends,” said Kolstad, 72. Now retired from a career in diabetes management and food service, she was working at Winchester Medical Center’s Cork Street location while battling cancer seven years ago.

Every day her coworkers left her a gift at her desk. “That meant a lot to me,” she said.

Kelleher also thanked her friends, whom she called “life blood” during illness.

“When you have cancer, you will find out who your real friends are,” she said.

That’s why laughter was so important to her.

“Your sense of humor will show your friends that you’re still you,” she said. “If you can laugh at yourself, your friends can too and it will just make things a lot easier.”

The book begins with a quote from the website How to Kill Your Imaginary Friends: A writer’s guide to diseases and injuries, and how to use them effectively in fiction, at

“Cancer sucks,” Kelleher wrote. “There’s nothing about cancer that doesn’t suck. WRONG!”

With chapter titles like “Baseball, Boobs, Biopsies and Belly Laughs,” her book seeks to encourage readers to challenge life’s trials with laughter.

“Writing it was the easy part,” said Kelleher. “I hope that they will learn to accentuate the positive, find the funny in their own lives … to help them cope.”

Kelleher’s book, “Big C, little ta-ta,” is available in print at, starting at $6.26.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or