Beth Howard is a busy woman. She devotes many of her days to flitting back and forth from Capitol Hill in her role as an advocate for health care issues.
She’s also the co-founder of the Sterling Playmakers, which means a big chunk of her time is spent directing productions like “Hello, Dolly!,“which premieres July 20 at Potomac Falls High School. In all of this she somehow has to make room for friends and family, and then of course there’s the chemo – the chemo has to be a priority.
Howard has lived with stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer for more than five years.
“I’ve been so lucky,” Howard said. “I had Inova Loudoun [Hospital] with such amazing doctors and services available right away. I have an amazing support network and I do exactly what the doctors tell me to do no matter what. This isn’t going to be the end of me.”
Rather than focusing exclusively on her illness, which many would regard as a terminal diagnosis – by her own acknowledgment, the survival rate for the rare form of breast cancer she has is less than 1 percent – Howard has turned her energy outward.
“It made my desire to speak for other people so much stronger,” said Howard, an advocate for the National Breast Cancer Coalition. “There are communities where it may be four to six hours to drive to chemotherapy. I’m still on chemotherapy, and having to drive that far limits whether you can take treatment, whether it will be accessible. If I had been in one of those communities, would I still be here?”
Howard noted that other factors, such as education and access to health insurance, can play a role in the quality of care patients receive.
“Funding for treatment, education and research is my number one goal,” said Howard. “I always work as part of a team, so I don’t know that I can take any credit, but I’m part of a team that gets funding for programs like breast cancer education for teen girls. And that is so great. Self-examination and early detection can do so much.”
When she isn’t in Washington trying to find money for cancer research (often with her bald head prominent) she does things for herself. Like theatre.
“It has helped tremendously,” she said. “I love being around and mentoring young people. It gives me energy. On bad days, it can be a really good distraction. I’m surrounded by people who care about me, who really want to know how I am doing.”
If Howard stressed one thing, it was how much she draws from those around her: from her mother (“my biggest supporter”) to her friends (“my fab five”) to the reverend at her church and the crew on the set of “Hello, Dolly!”
“I laugh because I always say I channel Dolly,” said Howard. “She is so strong and she has to figure out how to do it on her own. I don’t meddle in people’s lives, which Dolly does, but she surrounds herself with happiness and I do that, too. She’s a matchmaker. She puts people together and makes them happy. In the end, she finds a way to make herself happy.”
In the meantime, Howard pushes forward day-to-day.
“No one tells you that you’re going to lose every hair on your body,” she said. “And the first time your hair falls out it will be absolutely devastating. So not every day is good. There are some days I feel so bad that all I can do is curl up in a ball on my bathroom floor and throw up. Then I tell myself, ‘You can do this. You’ll go to bed tonight, and this will be over tomorrow. You’ll make it. Just get to tomorrow morning.’”
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