BELFAST, Maine — Chemotherapy is usually not anyone’s idea of fun, but Ashley Messner of Brooks is changing that by wearing theme costumes — and bringing a lot of laughter — to her twice-monthly appointments.
Last week, Messner, 41, who has Stage 4 colorectal cancer, even brought some game-show pizzazz to the oncology unit at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. She wore a homemade “The Price is Right” costume, including a shirt that sported a giant yellow name tag. On it, she had written in giant letters, “Bob, pick me,” a reference to longtime host Bob Barker.
Her chemotherapy buddy, a friend who comes with her to all her appointments, wore a shirt that said “I heart plinko” and brought prizes for the oncology nurses who agreed to play the Hi-Lo grocery price game with them.
“Everyone waits for our costumes. Today they were anticipating it, so we got the ‘Come on down!” said Messner, 41. “The whole point is to laugh, It’s a hard job for them and a hard thing for us. The more you can not take it seriously, the better.”
It was the latest in a series of costumes that Messner and her friend, Abi, who did not want to share her last name, have worn to the treatments she began last summer. So far, the themes have included Victorian dresses, inflatable dinosaurs, ugly sweaters, Christmas pajamas, garish 80s clothes, yachting gear and more.
They are seeking to find humor and joy in something that is otherwise difficult. Messner, who was given just an 8 percent chance of survival when she was diagnosed two years ago, believes that this creative approach to chemotherapy treatments has changed her prognosis, outlook and mental health for the better.
“We have just decided to not be doom and gloom,” Messner said. “It’s neither one of our personalities.”
“I also think the laughter makes the sadness palatable,” she said.
Messner, a midcoast Realtor and single mother of two, is fighting a tough disease. Colorectal cancer is the third-most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S., and is the second-most common cause of cancer deaths in the country when numbers for men and women are combined, according to the American Cancer Society.
Although it is better-known as something that strikes older people, in recent years more and more Americans under 55 have been diagnosed. Symptoms can include blood in the stool, persistent abdominal discomfort and weakness or fatigue.
“So many people are getting it, but because they’re ignoring the signs, and doctors are not really looking for it because it’s not common in our age group, they’re finding it really late,” Messner said. “So most people are finding out at Stage 4.”
That is what happened to her when she was just 39 years old and had been suffering excruciating hip pain for six months. She and her doctors tried everything: Physical therapy, acupuncture, pain management medication and x-rays to try and find out what was causing the pain.
Nothing worked. On Jan. 1, 2020, she went to the emergency room with acute pain and nausea.
“Something’s really wrong,” she said.
She had scans and then an emergency colonoscopy, an exam that detects changes or abnormalities in the large intestine and rectum. When she woke up from the procedure, her medical team was standing at the foot of her bed. One person was holding a box of Kleenex.
“Oh, this is bad,” she thought.
They had found a softball-sized cancerous tumor in her colon. That is what had been pushing against her hip, causing the pain, and after surgeons removed it, the pain disappeared.
But the cancer didn’t. It had spread to her liver, and then to one of her lungs and then her gallbladder. She had surgeries on all those organs within a year.
“They thought they were getting it,” she said. But a few months later, the cancer came back.
That’s when her doctors shifted their approach from trying to cut out the tumors to putting her on chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells. They told her they would treat it until the treatment stopped working.
“And so I’m on chemo for life,” Messner said.
The cancer is responding well to treatment. She’s not in pain, and doesn’t feel bad. But every two weeks, she must go to the hospital to sit in a chair while the infusion is given through a port in her chest, a chore she chooses to do in style.
“With the exception of the dinosaurs, one of the things that’s kind of alarming to us is that we’ve owned all of this stuff. We haven’t had to buy anything,” Messner said. “Not even hoop skirts or unicorn sweaters.”
Abi joked that the chemotherapy appointments have given her an excuse to wear every costume she has always wanted to wear.
“I’ve always wanted inflatable dinosaurs. But would I have gotten them and worn them around Belfast? Probably not,” she said. “But Ashley’s chemotherapy has given me the opportunity to live out my dream of running through the streets in a dinosaur costume.”
Some outfits have been more challenging than others, including the inflatable dinosaurs and the hoop skirts, which made it hard to sit down. Some of their favorite costumes have been ones that invited interaction from the nurses and others at the hospital, including last week’s “The Price is Right” attire.
“When we wore yachting clothes, the nurse came over and said, ‘I’ll be your activities director for this series,’” Messner said. “They’re into it.”
The lighthearted costumes and fun make the harder parts a lot easier to take. Still, in many ways, the cancer diagnosis has upended her life. She lost her mane of dark hair, and because chemotherapy “makes you a little fuzzy in the brain,” she is not currently working as a broker. Instead, she’s doing client referrals, which has meant a sharp drop in income.
“I didn’t feel it was ethically correct to represent somebody’s life savings, and will stand by that decision until I feel better,” she said. “But it is hard to adjust to a completely different economic status.”
The community and her family are helping her cope. There’s a fundraising effort to assist her with unexpected costs, and her mother has come to stay with her to help with the kids. Her father is planning to move to Maine, too.
Messner also is taking part in several medical studies, which are helping to cover her medical bills and are giving her a way to contribute to the body of knowledge about young-onset colorectal cancer.
Messner said that she would like younger people to really pay attention to their bodies.
“When something is not getting better, no matter what it is, really follow through with the testing. And stay fit, stay healthy, stay active,” she said. “I really believe that’s what has helped me. I came into cancer healthy.”
But that’s not all she would like people to know.
“The biggest thing is, whether you have cancer or not, just find humor in every day and roll with it, because it’s going to make your life so much easier,” she said.