You have breast cancer. These four words can change your life forever. These area survivors have been there, and as National Breast Cancer Month approaches, they are here to share that there is strength, hope, and healing to be found after a diagnosis.
Clarence Willingham diagnosed at age 57
I had always been a very healthy person and when I found a lump in my breast area, I thought it was just a cyst. But then it turned into a wound that wouldn’t stop bleeding.
When the oncologist said “stage four breast cancer,” I just cried. My wife kept asking, “Why? Why?” But then she said, “We’re gonna fight!” – and the fight began.
The skin had to heal before I could begin treatment, so for four weeks my wife dressed and cared for my wound. Then I underwent a mastectomy, chemo, and radiation.
Through all of it, my support system was just wonderful. My wife lifted my spirits and loved me unconditionally. My son read me scriptures reminding me that God would see me through. I have six grandchildren and some of them went to every single chemo treatment with me.
Now I am doing wonderfully. I go to the gym to exercise and love being able to do physical things again. I love to grill out and it’s great to be able to taste the food again! My wife and I can do some traveling which we love.
I want to tell my story and I think God wants me to too. If you or someone you care for has breast cancer, there is hope. Hope was given to me and I need to give it to others.
Judy Norton diagnosed at age 43
It was December and I was busy doing the last of the Christmas shopping. We had plans to take our girls to Chicago for the holidays. I had my yearly mammogram scheduled that day, but with so much to do, I thought about skipping it. After all, the results had come back negative for years! But I decided I might as well go while I was out shopping.
A few days later, I got a call that they wanted to redo my right side. I didn’t think anything of it – I needed to go to the mall anyway! But then when we were in Chicago, I checked my messages and there was one from my doctor. He asked if I could come in to talk.
The mammogram had found a suspicious place and they wanted to do a biopsy.
A few weeks later, the results came back: I had breast cancer in situ – an early form of breast cancer, but one that still needed to come out.
After that I had two segmentectomies, but neither of them got clear enough margins. So then I had a choice between a mastectomy or starting radiation therapy. I decided to go ahead with the mastectomy and followed up with reconstruction.
This April it will be 15 years that I am cancer free! I am so thankful I did not skip that appointment that day in December. If I had, I don’t think I would be giving you the same story.
Melissa Blevins diagnosed at age 39
Cancer affects every person differently. I had friends and family that ran to my side and some ran away. But I survived. I became stronger, and I fought the battle with all I had.
In the past two years I completed seven surgeries, 33 radiation treatments, and six months of chemotherapy. Through it all, I was surrounded by my incredible friends, family, and co-workers. I did not take a single step in the journey by myself.
Most days I stayed positive, upbeat, and on the move. I realized that I had cancer, cancer did not have me. But on the dark days I questioned my beliefs, asking “Why me?” Those moments were tough and they still are today. But I remind myself that each day is a gift, not a given. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us.
Cancer has opened my eyes to what’s truly important. My advice after my cancer experience is this: Don’t wait until something catastrophic happens to make life-changing decisions. Live your dreams, love unconditionally, and laugh every chance you get.
Tina Kim diagnosed at age 43
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. At that time I had already lived in Chattanooga for 20 years after moving here from Bangkok, Thailand. I never smoked, never drank anything but water, and always ate healthy.
When the doctor found my cancer, he recommended I remove my entire breast instead of just the lump. That way, there was no need to get radiation. I only would need chemo eight times every other week.
I had several complications. The first one was 10 days after my first surgery, when blood began leaking out of my aorta after a suture loosened. But God really blessed me, because by some miracle I kept calm. The doctor said that if I had been scared my heart would have beaten faster and I would have lost more blood and possibly even died.
So many people helped me during my chemotherapy. I couldn’t work at my job at a nail salon because my hands always hurt. I couldn’t even open a bottle of water. I stayed home for 10 months with my 4-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. I had no income, but I had so many angels who supported me. All of my clients donated money to help me pay my bills until I could get back to work. I felt really, really blessed.
I hope my story can inspire someone out there to not give up. God gives everybody opportunities; just never give up and go as far as you can go.
Denise Hockenberry diagnosed at age 33
Seventeen years ago I found a lump in my armpit area during an aerobics class. The very next day I was in a bad car accident, and on the ambulance ride, the paramedic asked me if I had any bumps. I explained that the lump under my arm was actually there the day before the wreck.
Still not thinking it was anything to worry about, I was surprised when the ER nurse asked to see the lump. I explained it wasn’t from the wreck, but still she insisted I go have it checked.
When they sent me to get an ultrasound, I still couldn’t understand why they were so concerned about something so little! Then when they said they wanted to biopsy the lump, it hit me. I was frozen.
Within an hour I was told that I had breast cancer. It was surreal. I couldn’t speak, I had a knot in my throat, and I was fighting off crying. At the same time, I kept thinking, “I need to get home, my children are due to get off the bus.”
Both my parents were here within 24 hours, and they saw me through surgeries, chemo, and radiation. At the time of my diagnosis I had a lumpectomy, but just this last year I opted for a full mastectomy and complete reconstruction.
This journey has brought me to such an amazing place in my life. Now I’m in this army of pink ribbon survivors that have a bond like no other.
Angie Thomas diagnosed at age 44
After an exam, I was sent for a mammogram. I called my husband, Marc, to tell him what was happening. From this moment forward, I could not have asked for more love and support from my husband.
The results showed I had a suspicious cyst – and even thought it wasn’t clear whether it was cancerous, we set a date for a lumpectomy. Two days after the surgery, I learned I had fast growing, stage two cancer.
After the initial shock and crying, Marc and I set out on a mission: a mission for survival. I had a mastectomy that July, and I will never forget waking up to Marc telling me that my lymph node was clear!
After chemo, I returned to work in early spring and life went on as usual. Even though I had to be on medication for five years, I put breast cancer behind me and moved on. I had survived.
Today I have the privilege of being able to support others who have breast cancer. As I write this, my mother-in-law is on her way for her first chemo treatment and my friend Paula is recovering from surgery. I pray that I can continue to help and encourage these dear women.