SEQUIM — After a cancer diagnosis, husband-and-wife Pepper and Vonnie Putnam of Sequim say it’s important to stay positive and keep your sense of humor.
Twenty years ago, Vonnie, 81, was diagnosed with breast cancer months after moving to Sunland, north of Sequim, from Bellevue.
“It scared us to death,” Pepper said. “The hardest thing was accepting it and trying to find out a way to tell our children.”
Said Vonnie: “We sat ’em down and there were a lot of tears shed.”
Diagnosed in October 1997, Vonnie had surgery two months later in Sequim.
Her family kept the humor going.
“When she went in for the lumpectomy on her left breast our youngest daughter wrote with a Sharpie on her right breast ‘the other one,’ ” Pepper said.
“When [Vonnie] went into the operating room, the doctor just smirked and told us later, “I got your message.”’
Among the stories the couple has about Vonnie’s treatment and recovery is the solace she found in attending and serving on the board for the annual Mad Hatters Tea Party.
This year’s luncheon, which has the theme of the Roaring Twenties, will mark 20 years of supporting local women who have, or are survivors of, cancer.
It is set for 11 a.m. Friday at Sequim Community Church, 950 N. Fifth Ave.
Tickets are $35 and can be reserved by contacting Linda Turner at [email protected] or call 360-681-5395.
Proceeds go to Olympic Medical Center Foundation and Operation Uplift of Clallam County, which helps local women without insurance pay for mammograms, wigs, and other treatments.
In recent years, the tea party has hosted upward of 250 participants at the luncheon distinguished by its many colorful hats.
The tea continues to honor the memory of Jan Chatfield, whom a group of friends tried to cheer up with a luncheon while she was battling cancer for the second time.
Unfortunately, Chatfield died nine months after the first luncheon, but friends and organizers continued to honor her with the event while being inspired by the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” to wear often outrageously decorated hats.
Vonnie, who has served on the tea’s board of directors for 10 years, said Chatfield was a mentor to her while she received cancer treatment and she recalls Chatfield encouraging her “to keep going.”
“[The tea] is very dear to me and the women we support locally,” Vonnie said.
That message “to keep going” seems to continue on with Vonnie 20 years later.
“You’ve got to keep a positive attitude,” she said.
“Once in awhile you break down but we keep life going. We always look forward to the next day.”
Pepper said his wife continues to have a “great attitude.”
“She’s devoted herself to supporting other women with this issue,” he said.
“I can’t talk strongly enough about her and the community of ladies that give to other women who are fighting this horrible thing.”
After Vonnie started chemotherapy and began losing her hair 20 years ago, a local hairdresser showed up unannounced to do Vonnie’s hair.
“It’s stuff like that from people we didn’t know,” Pepper said. “It was an amazing level of support.”
Vonnie said she found the lump while doing a self-examination in the shower, and later received confirmation it was cancer from her doctor.
Although the diagnosis was devastating, she felt good about her level of care.
“We knew women who had breast cancer who didn’t survive because the technology wasn’t there yet,” she said.
“But I knew the technology had improved and I had good support from family and friends.”
It also helped her to talk.
“Talking about it to me is a big help,” Vonnie said. “Some people like to keep it inside, but I think when you bring it out, it helps with the attitude.”
The couple recently celebrated Vonnie overcoming breast cancer by going on a cruise and they are still “relishing every day,” Pepper said.
For more information, visit facebook.com/clallamcountymadhatters.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].