By Randi Fremuth     Photos By Bob Thompson – Thompson Brand Images & Gordie Zimmerman

“I  have cancer.”

The weight of saying those three little words is a responsibility that most of us never anticipate having. Even today, in a world in which it seems almost everything is “proven to cause cancer,” we never think it will happen to us… to me… to our closest family and friends. But it does happen. According to breastcancer.org, one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. One in eight! Simple math tells us that means if you’re sitting in a room with twenty-four women, three are statistically likely to have or have had breast cancer at some point in her life.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Soon, everything will bare that signature pink color meant to bring attention to one of the leading causes of death for women in the US. There are many stories of survivors, but each story is unique and important in its own right. These experiences are so important to share, not only to urge women to do self-exams, but also to give inspiration, encouragement, and hope to those who are currently battling. Resident Magazine sat down with three incredibly brave, incredibly strong local women to listen to their stories. All three women gave credit for their strength and endurance to the support of their family and friends, community, and their doctors and nurses, but their strength also comes from somewhere deep inside of them. They all experienced this painful, scary, life-altering illness and came out with an appreciation for it; that is true power. Meet Lynette, Maranda, and Christine. Three women. Three warriors. Three incredible stories.

This is Lynette’s story: 

Lynette Arthurton was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in May of 2013. She’s a mother to two children and a loving grandmother to four grandchildren and three great granddaughters.

RM (Resident Magazine):  Tell us how your cancer story begins, how was it initially diagnosed?

LA (Lynette Arthurton): I felt a lump in my breast. At first I thought, ‘Well, you have fibrocystic breasts, so it’s nothing to worry about,’ but it was hurting me. I decided to have it checked out. A biopsy revealed it was cancerous. The thought occurred to me that I could die. Immediately after that thought came the Scripture verse, ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain”. What that verse meant to me in that moment is that if I lived, I will see my grandchildren grow up. If I died, I would be with Jesus. That settled me.

RM: How did you feel when you first received the news?

LA:  When I was  waiting to go in to  meet with the doctor to find out the results, the thought popped into my head to read Psalm 91. While I had read the Psalms many times, I did not know what this specific Psalm said. As I read the Psalm, I realized that God was preparing me for the results and comforting and encouraging me ahead of time. There were 5 things that stood out to me:

  1. I will find shelter and rest with Him He will protect me from the deadly disease
  2. I need not be afraid at night when negative thoughts come to mind
  3. He will send His angels to surround me
  4. This disease will not kill me. He will give me a long life.

When I met with the doctor, he told me I had stage 4 cancer. In addition to my breast, there were spots on my lungs and on my liver. He said my only option was chemo. I looked at him and said, ‘Let me tell you what my God said,’ and I read him the Psalm. I remained calm and unafraid, which is truly all God’s grace. If I had not experienced it, I would not have believed it.

RM: In your family, is there a history of breast cancer?

LA:  As far as I know, there is nobody in my family with breast cancer. I think I’m the first one.

RM:  Tell us about your support network.

LA:  I had the support of my family and friends. They were the Angels God promised me in the Psalm. They brought food, visited me, and helped me when I could not help myself. I had many people praying for me, many of whom I did not know. Most importantly, I had the support of God. In the early morning hours and all of the times I was alone, He was with me every step of the way. He kept His promise to never leave me nor forsake me. He kept his promise to not let the terror overcome me.In this, my journey with God, I was given the opportunity to see God’s word and His promises come to life. They are no longer just words to me.

RM: What passage comes to your mind most often?

LA:   There are several that come to my mind, but Psalm 91 stands out. Part of it it says, ‘He is my refuge and my strength’ and the other words said, ‘The terror by night will not get me.’ It also says, ‘Thousands may fall, but with long life, I will grant you.’ That’s Psalm 91. That’s what I clung to throughout the process.

RM: Tell us about your treatment process.

LA:  After the first round of chemo treatments, the new tests showed that the spots on my lungs and liver were gone. I could now have surgery. I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. The test results from the mastectomy showed there was no cancer in my lymph nodes, nor the chest wall.

After my surgery, he first time I looked in the mirror my sense of humor kicked in. I had the thought that the same doctor who sewed up Frankenstein sewed me up. My immediate thought was was that I was so thankful that my breasts, or lack of, do not define me. My identity lies in Christ and not in my breasts. I underwent more chemo after the mastectomy and had my last treatment in February of 2014.

Throughout treatment, I continuously had to make choices regarding my thoughts. I could choose to focus on the negative and be depressed, or I could choose to believe God’s promises to me. I chose to trust God. Every time a negative thought would pop in my head, and there were many, a scripture verse would pop in my head. I chose to trust God and His promises; not just from Psalm 91, but also with other scripture verses I had memorized over the years.

RM:  At what point are you in the treatment process now?

LA:  My last treatment was in February of 2014, so now I go in for maintenance every 3 to 6 months and get a check-up and CT scans.

RM: Did you face any obstacles during your treatment process?

LA:  One of the hardest parts of this journey was the fatigue and joint pains. There were many days when I did not want to get out of bed. I had to remind myself of another promise from God. He said when I am weakest He is strongest. I allowed myself to sleep in a little later, but then I had to get up to go to work. As I am single and self-employed, not working was not an option, although I did cut back on the number of hours I worked. During this whole time, most of my clients did not know I was in the midst of a battle. Remaining positive is so crucial. I’m a mental health therapist, so one of the things I tell my clients all the time is, ‘How you think is how you act,’ which is also biblical. If you think negative, that’s the way you’re going to act. You need to find that balance when you’re telling yourself the truth, but you’re not wallowing in the negativity of it.

RM:  What message would you like to provide women in the community?

LA:  It’s very important to check your breasts. Sometimes we think, whether consciously or subconsciously, ‘that can’t happen to me,’ but it can. It’s better to be overly cautious than to be too lax, so. Also, you have a choice. As difficult as it is, you can choose not to dwell on the negative. Negativity only weakens you more. And lastly, God keeps His promises and can help you just as He helped me. It is not easy, but He is always right there.

RM: What one word would you use to describe life after a cancer diagnosis?

LA: I think for me, the word would be journey. In my journals, it was my journey with God. You do look at life a little bit differently because a lot of things you took for granted. You realize you are truly blessed with what you are given.  I look at my scars from the bilateral mastectomy and some people say, ‘well, do they bother you?’ and I say ‘no, those are my battle scars.’

It shows that I won the battle.

This is Christine’s story:

Christine Parnell was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer on June 14th, 2016 at 42 years of age. She’s a wife to Patrick, mother to 13-year-old Maygan, and, at the time of the diagnosis, was 30 weeks pregnant with her now six-week old son, Camden.

RM:  Tell us about how you discovered you had cancer.

CP (Christine Parnell): I was taking a shower when I felt a lump and asked my husband if he could feel it. He didn’t think it felt right. I had an (already scheduled) appointment with my OB (Obstetrician) the following day, and I was very hesitant to say anything to her, so my husband told her. She did an exam and said that it didn’t feel normal, and that it was not in relation to my pregnancy. She said that I needed to go to the Breast Care Center, so I made the appointment the next day. They did the mammogram and the ultrasound, and the radiologist said I needed to have a biopsy immediately. It [the lump] was small at 1.8 centimeters, but it was very close to the wall, and because I was pregnant, it was a very aggressive cancer because it was feeding off of the hormones. They had me come in the next day, and we did a biopsy. When they got the results, they called me into the office and told me that it was stage one. We needed to be aggressive because no one could guarantee that it would stay a stage one if I waited until I delivered.

RM:  What was the plan of action, considering you were pregnant, as far as treatment was concerned?

CP: I had a very hard time because I knew whatever I chose to do was going to affect him [the baby]. I needed it removed. I didn’t want to go under [anesthesia] because if I go under, he goes under. I was scared. My OB said I didn’t have a choice. It had to be removed. I had a wonderful surgeon who did the   biopsy, as well as the  lumpectomy. They removed  it but there were  alot of risks. They put me  under with the least amount of  anesthesia that they could use.

Within 15 minutes of waking up from the surgery, I was not tired; I was very awake. My surgeon was phenomenal. It was an hour process. [The cancer] was just in the lump; it was not in the surrounding tissue, and it was not in the lymph nodes. [Camden] did fine. I had an OB nurse right there with me in surgery with monitors on him and we had OB staff on standby in case something happened—if they needed to take him from me. The first thing I asked when I woke up was, ‘Is Camden okay?’ They told me that he never missed a beat. Everything was fine; he did fine. It was just very scary knowing that I had to do this, and there was a risk for him.

Camden was born at 37 weeks via C-section on August 4th. I had to start my chemo, and the doctors were willing to wait the seven weeks [after diagnosis], but they weren’t willing to go any further than that before I could start chemo.

RM: Do you have a family history of breast cancer?

CP: Yes, my mother is three years a survivor. Actually, my lump was in the exact same place as my mother’s. Ironically, this was not hereditary. I was negative on the BRCA testing (the BRCA gene that has been linked to breast cancer).

RM: Tell us about your support network.

CP: My husband Patrick has not missed one appointment, and he literally picked me up off the floor in the bathroom when I was crying because I was so scared. He told my daughter for me because I couldn’t do it.

I didn’t know what was going to happen, or if I was going to lose Camden. It took us 13 years of miscarriages to have him. I just wanted to make sure the choice that I made was the best choice.

Without my husband, I don’t think I could have been as strong as I was. My mom has been great. My father’s a survivor of cancer. He survived thyroid cancer twice, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. Just knowing that they’ve been through several things helps. I know I’m not the first person, and I’m not the last, but this is my story and my journey.

RM: You told us a little about your treatment process.  How did Camden factor in to your treatments?

CP: I was granted a week to have some bonding time with him, so on August 15th I started my chemo. I was very scared walking into the office. I stopped halfway down the hallway because I had heard so many stories– ‘you’re going to be sick,’ ‘you’re not going to be able to do anything,’ ‘you’re going to be really tired.’ I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to bond with my baby.’ This is not what I wanted.

I get two different types of chemo: one is through the port, and one is pushed through. It’s called, ‘the Red Devil.’ Thus far I have had no nausea, and I’ve been able to take care of my son. I did have the side effect of losing all my hair; that didn’t take too long. I tried to deal with it for a day, but every time I touched it, the hair would just literally fall out. I came crying to [my husband] and told him that it just had to go. It was a lot harder to see it coming out than it was to just let it go, so he shaved my head at 11 o’clock at night.

I had my second round of chemo last Monday. I’m tired. I’m very tired a lot, but it’s not kept me from being able to take care of my children. I’m thankful that I’m not experiencing a lot of the side effects that some people do. I have to have a total of four rounds of chemo, and then I start the medication. I have to take a chemo pill for 5 years, and after I’m done with the actual chemo, I begin radiation, which I will have to do for 30 days.

RM: Did you face any obstacles during your treatment so far?

CP: Really, just the stuff with my son. It was scary to know that he was going to go through this with me, and I wanted to make sure that he was safe the entire time.

RM: What message would you like to provide women in the community?

CP: I would definitely say to know your body. The smallest thing that doesn’t feel right, check it out and don’t wait. Don’t ignore even the smallest lump.

RM: What one word would you use to describe life after cancer diagnosis?

CP: Blessed. I’m truly blessed. Having cancer has turned out to be a blessing, and the most positive thing that could have happened.

This is Maranda’s story: 

Maranda Holley is a middle school science teacher who was planning to move to the Virgin Islands with her husband Kyle when she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in December of 2015.

RM: When were you diagnosed and at what age?

MH (Maranda Holley):  I found the first lump in November when my husband and I were getting ready to go run a 5k with one of my students. At first, because I’m only 33, the doctors didn’t know what to do, so they put me on antibiotics. Long story short, after 2 rounds of antibiotics, they did not work. I finally had an ultrasound done in December, and by the time I was actually diagnosed, I was stage 3 and it had already spread to my lymph nodes. I had a very aggressive form of cancer that was quickly growing because it’s fed by hormones. I’m only 33, so I still have lots and lots of hormones and the cancer just grew rapidly, and you could actually physically see it coming out of my body. I had 5 tumors by the time that I started chemo in January.

RM: How did you feel when you first received the news?

MH: My background is biology; I actually have two bachelor’s degrees in biology, a master’s degree in biology, and I went on to get a master’s degree in education in secondary sciences. By the time I was diagnosed with cancer, I had already figured it out, but I kept holding on to that hope. That was the one thing that kept my husband going, my mom going, my dad going, was that little bit of hope that maybe it’s not; maybe it is just an infection. On the day that I found out I was diagnosed, I was actually in a car dealership getting a recall done on my car.

I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t cry at that point. The first thing I needed to do was go tell my husband, so I got in the  car and headed in the  direction  of his office. On our wedding day,  we did a rose ceremony where we exchanged our very first gift to each other, and it was a single red rose, right after we were pronounced married. So, I stopped by a store, and I got a red rose and a pink rose. His office happens to face the parking lot, so I knocked on the window, and I held up the two roses. He walked out of his office with tears in his eyes, and I looked at him, and I said, ‘The red rose is supposed to signify the hardest things that we will ever have to face in our marriage. When we give these, we’re supposed to remember our wedding day and how happy we were. The pink rose is now our new favorite color.’ Then, I finally cried, and he cried. I called my mom afterwards, and she’s been a rock.

My husband and I are moving to the Virgin Islands. We’re moving to Saint Croix, and that’s been a dream come true. It was shocking to find out the news because we listed our house on the market in October, I found the lump in the month of November, and in December, I was diagnosed. Our house sold in 13 days so when I found out we had to do the biopsy, I just burst out into tears and said, ‘I have no place to live.’ We had just sold our home, and we literally had nowhere to live. Luckily, we have a really great group of friends. We lived in a friend’s house for four months while she was gone on a fellowship program to Israel. Our neighbors are snow birds, so we’re now temporarily living in their house until they come back this fall. We’ve not only been going through all of this, but we’ve been moving our whole lives around the Tampa area getting ready for our [permanent] move.

RM: Do you have a family history of cancer?

MH: I have no family history of cancer at all. I was BRCA negative. The only cancer that has happened is my mom had skin cancer on her nose, but that was it.

RM: Do you have a support network?

MH:  I have a huge support network. I don’t have any children of my own, but I’ve taught thousands of children at this point, and they all wore pink ribbons, they would dress in pink every day, and they decorated my classroom; they were just a huge support, and it was also really awesome going through this with them. They saw my hair fall out, they saw my hair come back, and they’ve seen how tired and fatigued I was. They also saw that I loved them that much that I continued going to work until I just couldn’t do it anymore. All of my family actually lives away; I’m originally from Alabama. A friend of ours got my parents an apartment just so that they could come because we didn’t know what I was going to need or how bad it was going to get. My mom stayed this entire time, and my dad has been going back and forth to check on my grandmother and take care of his brother and the rest of our family. My husband has been by my side this entire time.

RM: Tell us about your treatment process.

MH: I had chemo for 20 weeks, starting the first of two rounds in January 2016, and then a few weeks of healing. On July 13th, I had a double mastectomy and partial reconstructive surgery, where they put in expanders, which kind of just stretches out your skin. I was ‘Triple positive,’ and that means that there are different hormones they test you for. With that being said, there’s this drug, Herceptin, for those estrogen-positive receptors–that’s what my cancer feeds on. I continue to take that for 52 weeks. Today is my halfway point, and I will start radiation on Friday. I’ll have three weeks of radiation, and go every single day, except Saturday and Sunday. The radiation is a targeted therapy just to make sure that they got rid of all of the cancer cells. I pretty much have gotten rid of everything at this point.

RM: Tell us about what you do when you go to chemotherapy.

MH: One of my favorite things to do is to dress up and have a good time, so rather than having chemo treatments/chemo sessions/chemotherapy-those are all very sad words-I had chemo parties. Every party had a different theme. We had Gatorade margarita parties. I jokingly told my husband I was retiring forever, so we had a retirement party the last day that I went to work. We had a Cinco de Mayo party, and again had Gatorade margaritas, which is literally just Gatorade in a margarita glass; it’s not anything crazy. During my chemo parties, I was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I was Wonder Woman. One time, I dressed up like a leprechaun. I wore all kinds of silly, funny hats. One of the other really cool things that even my students got involved in was that I wore crazy socks. We called them my support socks. I

eventually had three drawers full of socks that people

would send me. I happen to teach at a Title 1 School, so a lot of my kids are underprivileged. I’m also a volleyball coach, and at every volleyball game, my girls would wear silly, crazy socks. I gave socks to all of them because I don’t need three drawers full of socks. So, every single Thursday, when I would have treatment, they would wear their support socks, and they would also wear their support socks to the games.

RM: Did you face any obstacles during the treatment process, and if so, how did you overcome those obstacles?

MH: (laughs) One of the many obstacles throughout treatment was the fact that we had to move around the entire time. I was fatigued with the chemo. It was really hard, but we have a lot of good friends who helped us move every time we had to. With one of our moves, we were there for 3 weeks, and my car got stolen from in front of the driveway. When the police officer showed up at the house, here I am; I’m bald, I have a nightgown on, and he walked in the door. I just died out laughing. I said, ‘I may seem like a crazy person, but you’re not going to believe my story.’

Another challenge was that on the day that I had my double mastectomy, my dog actually had 6 tumors removed as well, so my husband was kind of freaking out because there were a lot of things going on all in one day. The dog actually ended up not having cancer, he just had tumors because he’s old.  There have been little nuances, but keeping and maintaining positivity through all of this has been my steadfast.

A big obstacle throughout this process that I never even considered would be an obstacle is dealing with the battle of insurance. The first time

was during my first round of chemo. I was provided an anti-nausea drug that worked wonders, however without insurance, that drug was $700. When I started round 2, I got severely sick and severely nauseated, but the insurance denied me my medication. It actually made my treatment halt because I was so sick that I couldn’t go on and do treatments. The insurance company had to have multiple documentations, and they still never approved it.

RM: What message would you like to provide women in the community?

MH:  Make sure you’re checking yourself out, and when you don’t feel right, or you think something is wrong, go and talk to somebody about it. Go and have it checked.

RM: What one word would you use to describe life after cancer diagnosis?

MH: Adventure. My husband and I were ready to start a whole new life. It has been a long journey. I’m 33 and we’ve been struggling to have kids. We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary, and we’ve never been able to have kids. Now, I’m infertile because it was such an aggressive chemo treatment. The opportunity to move to an island is one of those, ‘Well, all of our baby money was all saved up; let’s just buy the house of our dreams, and let’s live this life. Let’s have fun on this adventure.’ You just have to look at the good. Being a school teacher, I have thousands of children, and I’ve got three beautiful godchildren. It’s just been an adventure, and you just have to take every day as one.

It’s hard to know what to say or do when someone close to us receives  a cancer diagnosis. We’re pressured to feel like we need to say the right words or offer the right kind of support, but there is no such thing. There is just love and acknowledgement. When asked how the people in their lives could best support them,  they responded:

Lynette: Ask how they can help. Don’t ask questions about all the details of the chemo, but ask if I

need my laundry done. Make a phone call and just say,  ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you. I’m praying for you.’ Just a phone call. People will say, ‘You know, I was thinking about you, but I thought you were resting, so I didn’t call.’ Well, how would I know you were thinking about me if you didn’t call?

Christine: For me, just so that I know that you’re there, it’s better to ask. It’s just better to say, ‘Hey, how are you? Are you okay? You look good today.’ Just something positive thrown your way can make a big difference. It’s like they say, you find out who your friends really are when you’re going through something that’s really difficult. Don’t be afraid. You can’t catch cancer from me. It’s okay to reach out. Just acknowledge it, because that support system is really what helps you get through. But, ask me. Don’t ask someone else, ask me.

Maranda: Just letting us know, ‘You’re not alone. I am thinking about you.’

When faced with something terribly difficult in our lives, we all cope in different ways. Some find strength in their faith, some turn to their spouses, family, and friends to hold them together, and some find the joy in every situation. Something these women have in common is their belief in the necessity of staying positive, trusting your instincts, and an insistence on doing monthly self-exams. It is life saving. Check yourself regularly, and contact your doctor if you have the slightest concern. Early detection is key, and it is what saved the lives of Lynette, Christine, and Maranda. These women did not choose their paths, but they choose to do something positive with their stories. They choose to spread love, encouragement, and hope and to let others know that it’s going to be okay.

 “I’m going to deal with it the best way that I can. I’m going to fight it because that’s how I’m going to win, and that’s how I’m going to prove that it’s going to be okay. I’m going to help other people, so they know no matter what challenge they’re faced with, there’s a positive side to it. You just have to fight.” -Christine.

For a list of symptoms to look for in regards to breast cancer, visit http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-symptoms-and-signs

For instructions on how to do a monthly self exam, visit http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-self-exam

Special thanks to Anita White and Florida Medical Clinic for their contributions to this article.

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