Sharai (pronounced 'Shari') Platt, of Tarrytown, was a busy working mother of two when a friend that she hadn't seen in over 20 years asked if she would illustrate a children's book she was writing.
Platt hesitated at first. Her old friend had remembered her as the girl who was always drawing and that had held true. Platt has always made art in various forms (graphics, murals, portraits) but she hadn't illustrated a children's book before and wasn't familiar with the process. Nevertheless, she agreed.
Then came a blow that almost made her bail from the project: in December 2010, Platt was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than quitting, she found great comfort in the creative process throughout her ordeal.
The author Bonnie Feuer would email her daily from Connecticut and Platt would share with her the details of her journey from surgery to chemotherapy to double masectomy to radiation and at last to being declared a Survivor.
There were times during the chemo when Platt didn't go out much because she felt so awful and that was when the art became the most crucial. There were times when she'd draw, she said, “with no hair and drains hanging off me like an octopus with tentacles.”
“I really got into [the project],” Platt said. She would research the animals depicted in the book and listen to music, and “draw for hours. It really helped me. I loved being alone and it distracted me for hours.”
It wasn't until her work was complete that she finally drove halfway to meet her old friend for the first time in decades. “She was ecstatic with the whole thing,” Platt said. “I'm so glad I pushed myself to do it,” she said.
Incredibly, what Platt never seemed to question was her commitment to continue working. She works in a printing facility in White Plains and over the course of four months of chemo would take every other Thursday off from work for the treatment, an all-day experience at . On Fridays, she felt fine enough to go back to work, but then she'd spend the weekend “glued to the couch.”
Her husband would take the kids off to their grandparents in Queens or take them out to give her space and time to rest and heal. And when the kids were around during the week, Platt would draw after they went to bed.
In September 2011, Platt underwent the double masectomy, and now at the age of 44 she is considered cancer-free at last. The loss of her breasts, she said, bothered her not a bit. (She joked with friends that she'd have a new pair on time for this summer). Rather it was the hair loss during the chemo that rocked her most. “I would stare for hours in the bathroom mirror, pulling my hair out, watching bunches just shed.” Her hair had always been long and full.
For a while she wore a headscarf but felt very self-conscious. She found a wig shop in Yorktown with “a beautiful wig. It looked like my hair before, but better” right down to the cut bangs and angled sides. The wig was a mixed bag though. It mysteriously never frizzed in humidity, and though Platt got lots of compliments, “I knew deep down it wasn't my hair but it helped me blend in, do the grocery shopping, anything.” Now her hair is growing out, but for a while with her glasses, she was told she resembled Gabriel Giffords.
Her kids are young, ages 4 and 6, and kids can be far more adaptable than adults. With the help of a book Sloan gave her on the topic of parenting in such circumstances, she tried to keep things normal but honest. “Kids really know what's going on anyway,” she said. Platt took them wig shopping. They would feel her bald head and not think anything of it. “I tried to be the same person.”
Throughout it all, Platt never seemed to succumb to negativity. “Not getting better wasn't an option.” She said she's been pretty tough, not because she's insensitive but but because “I really believed in fighting.” She also “didn't have the luxury” of going to any support groups, because she didn't have the time. Instead, she drew a lot of support from her team at Sloan, confiding in nurses in the chemo room who she would log so many hours with.
Platt walked a lot, a habit that has stuck. Her family lives in a particularly hilly part of Tarrytown and she walks the streets of Gracemere and Emerald Road, an area like a “little enchanted forest.”
There are costs to cancer of course beyond the physical and mental. Platt wanted to switch her life insurance in the midst of this but was told with a cancer diagnosis she couldn't touch that for at least five years. And in the end she said it wasn't the disease itself that was hard but all the “grueling treatments and surgeries. I can't believe it's done.”
Sadly Platt's mom has just gotten diagnosed with breast cancer; she too will undergo a double masectomy and get reconstructive surgery. But if she's anything like her daughter, she doesn't want to hear “I'm sorry.”
Since the children's book, Wallaby the Wanna-be, came out some months ago, Platt's done a few readings (one here at the ) and one in CT with the author, which she has found very gratifying. She didn't tell anyone at the hospital that she was working on her book until it was complete and she brought it in to show them. “I won't miss my treatments,” she told them, “but I will miss you.”
Emerging now on the survivor side of the equation, Platt can honestly say, “I feel better now than I did before cancer.” And valuable lessons learned: “I do what I want to do now. I appreciate my kids more. They are happy because the time I spend with them is quality.”
A hall full of cancer survivors along with their loved ones and Sloan-Kettering staff were honored recently at the for National Cancer Survivors Day. Platt said she was very anxious to go and hadn't slept much the week leading up to it. Being a survivor has its own responsibilities. She is, of course, forever changed. She is at work on another project now – with the same author; without the cancer.
Wallaby the Wanna-be, which one reviewer says “teaches children to focus on positive aspects of others and to appreciate others as they are” is available at Amazon by following this link.