- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - For four weeks in early summer, the New Orleans streetcar driver worked every day without pause. She smiled at riders, joked with co-workers, didn’t complain. But through it, she kept a secret. On May 9, Yolanda Brown had been diagnosed with breast cancer - the disease that her mother had survived, that her grandmother had not.

The disease was discovered at stage II - having extended into lymph nodes under her left arm. It would eventually force Brown to get a get a double mastectomy, to have nine lymph nodes removed, and to undergo three months of chemotherapy.

But until Brown endured surgery June 9, the suffering was her secret. “I had to keep it inside all the time. I couldn’t even say ‘cancer.’ I couldn’t say that,” Brown said. Up until the day she entered surgery, she kept a poker face. “From May 9 to June 9, I think I didn’t really break down.”

After surgery, she could barely extend her left arm, couldn’t lift either arm above her shoulders; the chemo exhausted her.

But in October, Brown was back at work, smiling at riders, enjoying her job - a month back at work, another secret kept, before she entered the next round of surgery to allow for breast reconstruction that would force her home again.

“I love to drive,” Brown said. “I always have.”

Brown got back to work for one month due to exhausting physical therapy sessions scheduled throughout three months of chemotherapy.

“I’ve never seen anyone in the middle of treatment say, ‘I’m going back to work for a month,’” said her occupational therapist, Laura Gaillot.

But Brown wanted to earn money to buy Christmas presents for her 8-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, and to show them she was doing all right. “I was thinking, ‘I have to really get myself together, because I can’t let my children see me like this,’” Brown said. “I had never been sick in my whole life. I don’t take off work. For them to see me down, it was like a part of me was missing.”

Gaillot understood. The two women are both 32, both mothers. “It’s emotional to see her go through that because we’re both the same age, we want to be professionals and we want to go back to work,” Gaillot said. “We’ve become good friends through this. We spend sometimes more time together than with our own families.”

In the STAR Program at Touro Infirmary, Gaillot structured sessions twice per week to get Brown to her goal. The program is designed to improve the lives of cancer survivors, with specific therapies to improve everything from patients’ strength to their ability to speak. “As far as I know, Yolanda is our first and only breast cancer survivor streetcar driver,” said Lillian O’Cain, who manages the program at Touro.

For Gaillot, Brown’s rehabilitation was an interesting challenge. The first step was learning what a streetcar driver does on the job and simulating those motions in the center’s gym. Gaillot was surprised at how much physical work drivers actually do: “I thought you stood still there and pushed a button to change direction,” Gaillot said, laughing at herself.

Drivers must use a cord on a pulley to heave up and down a 30-pound rod that attaches the streetcar to a power source, and on some routes must shift gears using metal levers that require hand and arm strength to control.

To mimic the weight of the 30-pound rod, Galliot adapted a set of weights that slide up a pole, so Brown could pull the weights up and control their drop down. To increase Brown’s endurance so that she could work a full shift, Gaillot pushed her into cardio training on an elliptical machine that requires Brown to use her hands to move forward. Watching Brown push her hands forward on the bars of the elliptical machine, one could imagine her pushing forward the shift lever.

Brown was so determined to get back to work for a month in October, that Gaillot would fight her about how much weight training her body could withstand. “If I told her she could go back to work today, she would probably go.”

POWERFUL SUPPORT

Brown learned her independence from her mother, Yolanda Ann Brown, who survived two bouts of breast cancer and, like her daughter, still drives for the RTA (buses are her specialty). Yolanda Ann Brown didn’t tell her children when her cancer was discovered either, though she was first diagnosed in 1996, two years after her own mother died from the disease.

Like her daughter, Yolanda Ann continued to drive for RTA through portions of her therapy. “I raised them to be independent,” she said of her children. “Don’t depend on nobody to do it for you. … Go get it for yourself.”

The younger Yolanda Brown lives in the Lower 9th Ward, on a street with more lots of tall dried grass than homes. If she is home while her children are away, she keeps cartoons playing on the television for the cheery voices.

It was here that Brown returned from her first round of surgery June 9, to find that she could hardly lift her left arm, could not extend it from her body. After chemo began July 10, her long flowing hair began falling out. The chemo made her sick, in a way that her 8-year-old son suddenly noticed - only to run away, crying. “He was too young to understand, he didn’t understand.”

She told her daughter, now 16, about the disease only after her daughter had graduated from the 8th grade. She told her family only after a cousin’s wedding. Brown had not wanted to detract from others’ happiness.

As she struggled through treatment, Brown transformed from the friend others came to for support or laughs, to the one seeking help. “My support system was real powerful,” she said.

A friend printed T-shirts for a Race for the Cure team to support Brown, bearing the message “It came, she fought, she won: Breast Cancer Survivor.” A drawing of a pink ribbon loop transforms into the strings of two boxing gloves - testimony to Brown’s strength.

Now she needs that strength again. She has completed breast reconstruction surgery but cannot yet return to her route because of a pinched nerve in one hand, perhaps caused in surgery.

In the meantime, she can be found in the gym at Touro, bringing 5-pound weights up as high over her head as possible, looking straight ahead as if staring at the end of her route. That’s the plan. “It’s focus,” Brown said. “If you don’t have focus and patience, you can’t do anything. That’s what gets me through this.”

December has been hard for Brown. Her fellow drivers are calling, texting, asking when she will be back. Her daughter and her son still need those Christmas presents, that support. “Right now it’s like a hard time. It’s the holiday time,” Brown said. “I’m used to being the sole provider, I’m just used to being a single parent who can take care of her children. Now that I can’t provide for them like I used to. It’s hurtful,” she said.

Though insurance covered much of her treatment, she still owes $10,000 in medical bills. She will have to begin paying in January, whether she is at work or not, and cannot qualify for disability because she went back to work in October, she said. “The financial problem is still the hardest of all,” Brown said. “How am I going to pay for it if I can’t go to work?”

“I have my up and down days.”

At a recent therapy session, Brown was having an up day. She smiled through the pain of the weight exercises, chatted with another patient. “See me sweating?” she asked a therapist.

“Everyone is rooting for me to get back to work,” Brown said.

“It’s definitely in our plans,” Gaillot, her therapist, said. “I want to ride a street car, with her driving it.”

___

A PayPal account for Yolanda Brown’s medical bills and Christmas presents for her children has been set up https://www.paypal.com/home . Enter the email YNBrown01@hotmail.com to donate.

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