By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
ROYAL OAK – Living life in the closet can feel like a chronic illness. And, when an actual chronic illness like cancer strikes, staying there could make everything worse. That’s the message that cancer survivor Diane Holcomb and Kimya Ayodele, Affirmations’ community outreach coordinator and director of senior programming, will bring to Gilda’s Club on Wednesday, April 20.
Holcomb was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2002 and since then has undergone nineteen surgeries and seventeen angioplasties, as well as thirty additional complications. “I’ve had a very long journey,” she said.
Holcomb’s partner, Mary Costello, has been there with her through it all.
Though the couple has been together for 31 years, Holcomb said that they have only been out for the past eight.
“Coming from back in the 50s and 60s, life was so different for gays and lesbians that life could have been absolutely disastrous for us,” said Holcomb, a retired retail manager for Hudson’s who has since returned to school and earned her Bachelors Degree in fine arts from the Center for Creative Studies in photography.
Holcomb believes that the stress of living a closeted life may even have contributed to her developing cancer.
“From what I’ve read, the studies have shown that extreme stress can be a catalyst for the start of debilitating diseases, and the stress of staying in the closet is not healthy,” said Holcomb. “So who knows? Maybe that’s where my breast cancer came from.”
Being out when the cancer came, and having Costello as an active partner in her care as well as her life, has made all the difference, said Holcomb.
“I don’t know what I would have done without her through this whole process,” she said.
Granted, Holcomb and her partner were lucky in that Holcomb’s physicians accepted Costello.
According to Holcomb, “I don’t think there was ever any doctor who said – [and] at one point [I had] between eleven and fourteen physicians – I don’t think anyone ever said ‘What are you doing here?’ We were always comfortable and every physician and nurse that we came across made us feel that way.”
Now that Holcomb is past the worst part of her long journey, she is giving back to the Gilda’s Club community by giving presentations and photography classes.
According to Ayodele, if a person is attempting to manage a chronic illness, “It’s at the least easier, and at the most important that you be out. Because your relationship with your partner is important, [and] your lifestyle as it relates to your orientation is important.”
Ayodele said that she doesn’t push the point, however. “I try not to encourage or discourage coming out unless the person asks me for my opinion, because I’ve been fired for being out. If they were to ask me, I’d say it was important because relationships need to be valued even more at that point.”
In addition to the possibility of being fired for being out – which is legal in Michigan – Ayodele admitted that Michigan law can make it difficult for same-sex partners to manage a chronic illness together.
“Powers of attorney aren’t necessarily honored, and living wills aren’t legally honored in Michigan,” she said. “Medical and durable powers of attorney are supposed to be honored, but [birth] families can come in so [they’re] not always honored. Because two men or two women aren’t a legal family,” in Michigan.
Overall, though, Ayodele agreed with Holcomb that the stress of being closeted can add to the difficulties presented by chronic illness.
“As a nutritionist I always think when you’re out you tend to be psychologically happier, and I think a person’s state of mind helps their state of being. So when a person comes out they’re more relaxed, and it can help them manage their illness,” she said.
Diane Holcomb and Kimya Ayodele will address “Coming Out and Chronic Illness: Professional and Patient Perspective” on April 20 from 6-8 p.m. Gilda’s Club is located at 3517 Rochester Rd. in Royal Oak. For more information contact Christine Spencer at 248-577-0800, ext.24.