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Being bald in big-hair land challenges cancer survivor

2/8/2001 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: Photographs are available for use with this story.

A UMNS Feature By Linda Green*



A certified United Methodist lay speaker who had faith the size of a mustard seed has written a book detailing her ordeal with cancer and how she struck up an amazing friendship with God.

Joni Rodgers, a member of Cypress Trails United Methodist Church in Spring, Texas, has written a memoir about her years battling cancer and its overwhelming effects.

Bald In The Land Of Big Hair is Rodgers' attempt to "offer a small light at the end of a long, dark tunnel - not just for people with cancer, but for anyone going though one of life's refining fires."

Although the book is a biography of sorts, the title is a tribute to the axiom that Texas is the land of bigness and is a place where people have an affinity for big hair.

Rodgers got the title from a conversation she and husband Gary had after working out at a local health club.

She said during her first few months of chemotherapy, Gary insisted they maintain their workout regimen several times a week.

"There was always a lot of big hair wranglin' going on the locker room," she said. One day Gary commented about being the "only chubby middle-aged man amongst all those young and studly weight lifters and I said, 'You think that's tough? Try being the only bald girl in the big hair capital of America!'"

Rodgers was diagnosed with cancer (non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) in 1994 at the age of 32 and lost her hair from chemotherapy treatments.

Raised in what she calls an "extremely conservative faith" and a product of 12 years of parochial school, Rodgers said that she could quote any chapter and verse in the Bible, but she understood little and "never saw God as a particular loving or welcoming entity."

After leaving home, Rodgers -- who was born into a family of gospel and bluegrass performers -- avoided the church, studied theater in college, moved to Montana and became one of the first female radio air personalities in the state. She also taught creative drama and, with her sister, co-founded a children's recording label where they wrote and produced three educational albums.

After joining St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Helena, Mont., with her husband, she said that "for the first time I witnessed the power of faith in action."

She relocated to the East Coast in 1990. "We left that fun church for the outer darkness of the East Coast, where people dressed up too much," she said. The next four years were spent focused on motherhood and acting, directing and teaching part-time. The family eventually moved to Houston, "where there was always something better to do on Sunday mornings."

Rodgers said facing cancer was "infinitely" difficult without the care and support of a church family. Her primary caregivers included her husband and mother.

"On my own, I scoured Scripture for some magic recipe for healing and became even more disillusioned," she stated. With faith the size of a mustard seed, she said she crumpled when more adversity arose. "I was so numb, I couldn't pray," Rodgers said.

The prayers of her family and the tape ministry from St. Paul United Methodist Church began to arrive and provided comfort and help during chemotherapy treatments.

"In the darkest moments of chemo, I suddenly became furiously angry at God, and oddly enough, God became real to me for the first time in my life."

Acknowledging that she did not very much like God, God appeared and became "a richly maternal, loving and welcoming power," she said. "I'd always kept Jesus at a safe distance, nicely ensconced on puffy white cloud, (but) after I'd thoroughly cussed him out for letting all this happen, I was able to let him sit down beside me and strike up what has turned out to be an amazing friendship."

Bald In The Land of Big Hair is Rodgers' third book. Her two earlier books, both of them novels written while taking and recovering from chemotherapy, "provided an escape from my not-so-terrific reality." While the other books were not about cancer, she said that the themes revolve around forgiveness, grace and spirituality.

A psychologist told her the best way to cope, move forward and start living a fuller life would be to use her experiences to help someone else. "He was so right," Rodgers said. "Helping others is empowering and lifts our eyes from our own funk of despair."

She began volunteering with the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and became a mentor to two young mothers who were undergoing chemotherapy. She also founded ChemoBuddies.com, an online resource center for people living with cancer.

Part of Rodgers' recovery occurred in the writing of her first novel, Crazy for Trying, and then attempting to write a realistic book she couldn't find as she was undergoing chemotherapy.

"I set out to write a book that does not sugarcoat the truth but offers a small light at the end of a long, dark tunnel," she said. "I also wanted - for readers and for myself - to set the experience in the greater context of life, the message being, 'Cancer is not who I am. It's just one thing that happened to me.'"

As she began writing her story, she first attempted to write with a flair toward the fluffy and light, and to show "that positive attitude all cancer patients are expected to plaster over their actual emotions."

When asked by United Methodist News Service about the difficulty in exposing herself through a biography, she acknowledged the difficulty of sharing her intimate thoughts and life events in a book that would be read by her family, friends, pastor and children. "But I kept thinking of the person for whom I was writing this book -- the woman who's going through hell."

"I've been that woman, and I couldn't bear to leave her all alone, while I pretended to be the Unsinkable Molly Brown," Rodgers said.

While writing Bald, Rodgers said she felt like Ebenezer Scrooge as he wrangled with the Ghost of Christmas Past. The ghost took her by the hand and "forced me to truly know all the fear, anger and grief I was too numb to feel at that time, and that was hard."

Those hidden emotions also help Rodgers understand herself, forgive herself and forgive those who had disappointed her.

"It opened my eyes to see how much I grew in spirit as a result of the journey. Every time I sat down to write, I prayed, 'Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,' and I've tried to keep that prayer at the front of my brain as I'm being swept away by the publicity and attention the book is now receiving."

The book has received accolades from Good Housekeeping magazine, which is featuring Bald in its March issue. The book also received a positive review in Entertainment Weekly. Rodgers has been chosen the Barnes & Noble Author of the Month for March.

Certified as a United Methodist lay speaker in 1997, Rodgers has not preached many sermons. With her cancer in remission, most of the speaking she has done has been at survivorship conferences, fund-raisers and book events. She has provided motivational and personal empowerment talks to women, writers, survivors, students and caregivers.

A lot of the material for Bald originated in one of her sermons, titled "Faith, Prayer and Platitudes."

Her spiritual growth has manifested itself through Joyful Noise, a youth praise team she directs at Cypress Trials United Methodist Church. Her mission as the director is to help the young people grow in their understanding of Scripture and to empower them as ministers, she said.

"I am so moved by the simple message of Jesus, his great hopes for us, his incredible effort to reach us," Rodgers said. "Whenever I feel off-track, I try to remember that my purpose is to share and embody the ideals he lived and died for."

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*Green is news director in the Nashville, Tenn., office of United Methodist News Service, the denomination's official news agency based in Nashville, with offices in New York and Washington.


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