There are women who demonstrate grace and dignity in the face of a life-threatening illness, there are those who transform a devastating medical condition into a positive, life-altering opportunity, and there are even those who selflessly extend a hand to others rather than focusing on their personal circumstances.
This article is a tribute to five of these amazing women. It is our hope that their stories will offer insight and inspiration to even more women who are facing the challenges of breast cancer now or must face them in the future.
“I am beautiful. I am strong. My cells are dividing as they should be. Recurrence is not my journey.” This mantra offers comfort and solace to Julianne Murphy in her life as a cancer survivor.
Julianne had always had fibrous breasts, so when she discovered a lump in May 2014, she wasn’t particularly concerned. A few weeks later, however, she noticed that her skin dimpled where she felt the lump, so she decided to have it checked out. “My husband nudged me to have it looked at, but I really thought that it was nothing but a cyst,” recalls Julianne. “The nurse practitioner suspected that, too. After all, I was only 37 years old — but she suggested that I have it evaluated further.” Accompanied by her husband and her mother-in-law, Julianne met with the doctor to learn the results of her biopsy. On June 24, Judith Perrotto, MD, a breast imaging specialist, delivered the devastating news that Julianne had stage II breast cancer.
“My life was perfect right then,” says Julianne. “I was starting to take violin lessons, and we were planning a vacation with friends. I asked the doctor if I could put this off for a little while.” However, Julianne learned that her tumor was the size of a golf ball and that she had an aggressive form of cancer, so treatment had to be initiated quickly.
“The thought of losing my hair was a big deal,” says Julianne, “so I decided to take charge. Cancer was not going to take my hair. I had it cut really short into a pixie cut. I loved it. After my treatment got underway, my scalp became so sensitive that even my hair hurt. It was time. My sister-in-law drove me to the Pearson Regional Cancer Center, where I received my treatment, and they shaved my head. We actually made it a fun experience. It was incredibly empowering.”
Julianne’s treatment included 16 intensive chemotherapy sessions and a year of maintenance chemotherapy. In December 2014, she had a double mastectomy. This was followed by several more operations to reconstruct her breasts. On June 24, her port was removed. “It was two years to the day,” says Julianne.
“Going through cancer treatment is difficult, but I felt like I had to be strong for my husband, Dan, so I didn’t always let on how I was feeling,” says Julianne. “He was really scared that he would lose me, and he had a lot to manage, working long hours and handling the logistics of my care. It was a lot to deal with, but he would still take time to read me stories at night when I couldn’t sleep.”
“There were so many other people who were there to support us both,” Julianne adds. “My mother-in-law repeatedly travelled four and a half hours from Maryland to care for me when my husband was working. Friends and neighbors dropped off meals. They drove me to treatment and held fundraisers to help us pay medical bills. My good friend Ruth, who is also a breast cancer survivor, told me what to expect and gave me positive affirmations that I repeat every day. One of my girlfriends showed up in her pajamas, and we watched movies. And another friend gave me a ‘dammit doll’ that I could use to pound away all my frustration. I truly never felt so loved.”
Julianne is now paying all the caring that she received forward. She volunteers at the cancer center, helping the nurses with supplies and delivering warm blankets and drinks to patients who are receiving chemotherapy. Recently, she completed training at Susan G. Komen so that she could serve as a volunteer educator on the Belk mobile mammography unit.
“I experienced a bit of survivor’s guilt,” admits Julianne. “I used to wonder why I made it when others suffered so much more and lost their battles, but now I know the answer. I have the opportunity to give back.”
“Emotional well-being is an important component of healing, and attitude is a choice,” says Julianne. It’s obvious that she opts to have a very positive one.
When the mobile mammography unit came to Carol Johnson’s place of employment in late October 2012, she decided to skip having a test that year. After all, it was such a pain. On the last day, however, a little voice told her that it might be a good idea to go ahead and get a mammogram. That little voice just might have saved Carol’s life.
“It all happened quickly. In November, I was called back for a repeat mammogram and then a biopsy. The week before Christmas, I got the phone call: I had cancer. And from there my journey back to health and healing began,” says Carol. Her treatment, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, was received through CMG Surgical Specialists and the Alan B. Pearson Regional Cancer Center.
It was Carol’s faith in God that helped her get through her cancer experience. “Going through treatment was challenging, but I reminded myself that it was necessary for me to get well,” says Carol. “I know that with God, all things are possible, so I remained strong and lived in the moment of each day. I focused on positive thoughts and my future, visualizing a healed body.”
“My family is small but very strong when faced with adversity. I relied on their strength to help get me through,” says Carol. “My daughter, Kheayla, was my rock. She became my advocate, my listening ears, my nurturer and my voice of reason, always offering words of encouragement. My sister, Ann Marie, made me the best smoothies when my taste buds went on strike. There is nothing like the love of family.”
Carol also discovered an inner reserve of personal strength that she didn’t know she had. “One of the hardest things for me was losing my long hair,” recalls Carol. “I knew it was just hair and that it would grow back, but I just didn’t want to wake up with a pile of hair on my pillow, so I had my hairdresser buzz it off. I bought a wig, but I wore it exactly twice.” Following her mother Barbara’s sound advice to hold her head high, Carol returned to work the next day with her head uncovered. “I just rocked my beautiful bald head.”
Aside from her family, many other people in Carol’s life gave her love and support during her ordeal. “The minister of music at my church prepared a playlist of inspirational songs for me to listen to during chemo,” says Carol, “and my friend who owns a towing service was part of my support team. He would drive me to treatment. The staff at the cancer center got a real kick out of seeing me slide down from this huge tow truck.”
Despite her cancer, Carol feels that her future is bright. “My bucket list grows every day, she says. “I am grateful for everything God has given me. I have a wonderful family and many friends. I am thankful for my renewed health, something that I don’t take for granted. I’ve been eating better and exercising more.” This November, Carol’s ‘little voice’ has suggested a wonderful way for her to celebrate her survivorship: by completing the Turkey Trot 5K with her family.
This scripture guided Carol Johnson through the challenging times during her cancer treatment:
The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him, and I am helped: therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise him. – Psalms 28:7 (KJV)
Cancer is no stranger to Beverly Rakes. Her husband died of cancer six years ago, and her aunt suffered from five types of cancer. Now, however, she marvels at how this disease can be life-changing in positive ways.
In September 2015, Beverly felt a lump in her breast, but she wasn’t really worried. Her mammogram just four months earlier had been clear, so she assumed that it was just a cyst. No big deal, right? But Beverly’s primary care provider, Julia Hodnett, FNP-C, didn’t agree, and she immediately sent her for tests.
“Then came ‘Bad Boobie Day,’” says Beverly. “That’s the day when diagnostic mammograms are done. I watched as everyone else got dressed and walked out the door, and then I was called into the office to get the bad news. In my case, I learned I had a tumor the size of a golf ball — and it was cancer.”
Beverly received her care from Nathan Lander, MD at Martinsville Hospital’s Ravenel Oncology Center. She opted for a double mastectomy. “I feel very fortunate to have needed only five chemotherapy treatments and no radiation,” says Beverly. Even her doctor was amazed at how quickly Beverly’s cancer responded to treatment. After only two chemotherapy sessions, her tumor was virtually gone.
“Having breast cancer has had a tremendous impact on me and on my life. I had built up walls around me, and I prayed that my heart would be opened,” says Beverly. “God listened and answered my prayers in unexpected ways.”
Having cancer meant that Beverly had to accept help from others. “The outpouring of love and support that I received from my friends, colleagues and church community was overwhelming. My chemo group became my family. Believe it or not, I was a little sad when I stopped going,” says Beverly. “My daughter lives in Pennsylvania. When she calls, she notices how happy and upbeat I sound.”
Beverly works for an organization that promotes health and wellness in her community, and now she is reveling in her own renewed health. “When I was sick, I never prayed for healing,” says Beverly. “Rather, I asked to be shown what lessons I was to learn from this experience.” In answer to these prayers, Beverly says that she learned a great deal. “Now I live my life to the fullest, enjoying every moment of every day. The world is fresh and new, and I am filled with gratitude.”
“God’s hand in my life is evident,” Beverly reflects. “He had a plan for me that included cancer, which turned out to be the hardest, most beautiful thing that ever happened to me.”
When Teresa Helmer detected a problem with her breast, she turned to the Free Clinic of Danville for medical care and emotional support. Now she is back there — only this time, she is caring for others.
Teresa knows the importance of getting regular mammograms, and her routine screening in August 2013 did not show any signs of cancer. She was quite surprised just four months later, therefore, to experience swelling in her breast and an itching sensation. She immediately checked with the Free Clinic of Danville, where the nurse practitioner, Phyllis Scarce, referred Teresa to Danville Regional Medical Center for a mammogram and ultrasound.
“I looked at the screen as the ultrasound tech was scanning me,” says Teresa, “and I knew something was wrong. I could actually see a black mass on my breast. Phyllis Scarce truly was my guardian angel. She received the results of my tests and called UVA Medical Center repeatedly, urging them see me quickly.”
On January 21, 2014, Teresa had five biopsies and additional mammograms and ultrasounds at UVA. When all of the testing was complete, she learned that she had stage III triple negative breast cancer. “I had an aggressive form of cancer,” adds Teresa, “with 26 lymph nodes involved, so my treatment had to be just as aggressive. I had eight rounds of chemotherapy and a total mastectomy. After recovering from surgery, I completed five weeks of radiation treatments. I drove two hours from Danville to UVA for my care. I truly believe I would not be alive today if it weren’t for the doctors and nurses there.”
Teresa credits her faith in God and her family and friends with helping her throughout her cancer ordeal. “My mother, my two sons, Micah (age 30) and Ryan (Age 27), and my good friend Shana Turner were all there for me when I had my surgeries. And so many people kept me in their prayers.” says Teresa. “I know that made a difference.”
Breast cancer has a profound physical, emotional and spiritual impact on every life it touches, but it also affected Teresa professionally. Due to her extensive treatment as well as complications from her surgery and several infections, Teresa was unable to work for 10 months. “I was so fortunate, though,” she says. Her employer assured her that her job would waiting for her when she was completely healed. After completing her treatment, therefore, Teresa was happy to return to her position with Support Services of Virginia, where she works with developmentally delayed adults.
“While I was receiving chemo, I enjoyed walking around and talking to the other patients, offering words of encouragement and support,” says Teresa. “Now that I am better, I would like to continue helping others. That’s one reason why I went back to school to become a phlebotomist and EKG technician.” Teresa is now doing her externship, hours of practical experience required to become licensed, at the Free Clinic of Danville. For Teresa, the circle of caring is now complete.