When thinking of survival, reality TV shows and sandy beaches often come to mind.
But what about the everyday survivors? The ones who never stand in the spotlight, yet their stories far outshine anything cooked up by Hollywood.
What about the people who are our friends, neighbors and family members?
And what about the hundreds of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year?
In February 2007, Shawna Hunley was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said the first thing she thought was that death was imminent.
“I was planning the funeral, the songs, the clothes I wanted to be buried in. I have two children and I thought I would never see my grandchildren,” Hunley said.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Tennessee, with white females being the most likely to be diagnosed, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. One in eight U.S women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime and it is the second leading cause of cancer death in Tennessee women.
“I was devastated. I remember talking to Shawna and her saying she was planning her funeral when she found out and that’s exactly how I felt when I was diagnosed in September of that same year,” said cancer survivor Traci Powers.
“The connotation is death,” agreed Doris Stanfield, who is the veteran survivor of the group, having been diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2000.
“It was like a record player over and over, ‘You’ve got cancer, you’ve got cancer,’ there was not escape and after three days, I thought I would lose my mind,” Stanfield said.
She said it was hard, because everyone tries to tell you, you’re going to be okay, but inside your body is screaming ‘You have cancer.’
Approximately 4,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year in Tennessee. Of these 4,000, around 910 will die from the disease. These are scary statistics for the women of the Volunteer state.
“You just feel fragmented, like if one little chip goes, then you’ll just break,” Stanfield said somberly.
“I just couldn’t get over the fact that people were going on with their everyday life,” Powers said.
Despite the fact that there is a much higher risk of getting breast cancer if you have a close relative with the disease, less than 15-percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history with the disease, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
None of the three survivors had a family history of breast cancer.
“Sometimes, there’s just no rhyme or reason,” Hunley said softly.
All of the women said their lives had been irrevocably changed because of their battle with cancer. They even went so far as to say that having cancer had a positive impact on their lives, making them better people in the end.
“People take life for granted; when you are a survivor, you never take it for granted again,” Hunley said.
Powers said she even looks at birthdays differently now. They are a celebration of being alive.
“I used to not care about my birthday, it just meant I was getting older, but now I’m tickled to death every time I have another birthday,” Powers said.
“If someone had asked me if having cancer was a positive thing, I would have told them they were crazy, but now- it is a positive,” Stanfield said thoughtfully.
She said it made her realize that every beat of our heart is God dependent.
The women, as they sat in the warm October sun, agreed that God was what kept them going first and foremost.
“When I went into my chemo room, you heard God talked about at every chair. It was God who gave me a peace about it in the end,” Stanfield said.
Moving in mysterious and purposeful ways, it was God and their faith in Him, which helped each woman to survive.
“Even though I used every medicine available, I never put my faith in it or the doctors, but always in God. Your family may not be able to go into the surgery room with you, but God is already in there,” Stanfield said.
“My radiologist sang to me one day,” Powers said contemplatively.
“He sang Great is thy Faithfulness, which is my favorite song, but he didn’t know that. It was like God was writing me a personal message,” Powers said, a slight sheen in her eyes.
Hunley, Powers and Stanfield met their battles head on, with a host of backup in the form of family and friends. It was also these people, who helped keep each survivor going, never giving up.
“My husband was incredible. He went to all my doctors appointments and no matter how late we go back, he would sit down at the computer and send out update emails to our family and friends,” Powers said. She said he was very scared, losing nights of sleep during her illness. It made her realize how very much he loved her.
“I finally said ‘Dennis, you’ve got to get a hold of yourself’,” Powers said, smiling at the memory.
Stanfield, who has been married to her husband George for 42 years when she was diagnosed, also said it made her realize just how special she was to him.
“For the first time in George’s life, he realized I wasn’t indestructible and the way he took care of me made me realize how very much he cared,” Stanfield said.
She said she had rarely, if ever had seen her husband cry. But when Stanfield learned that her husband had called her mother and broken down over her illness, she knew how worried and concerned he was.
“I always knew he loved me, but going through something like this shows you just how much,” Stanfield said, wiping tears away.
Hunley, who had only been married for two years when diagnosed, said she didn’t know how her husband would react. Not knowing at that point if she would need to have her breast removed, she was touched when her husband cared only about her health.
“Rick said ‘I don’t care, take them off of there’, he was just worried about losing me,” Hunley said. She said he fought the battle right there with her.
“He lost weight; as I would lose, Rick would lose,” she said.
The prayers and the small thoughtful gestures also helped to carry them through their journeys.
Powers said some of the best therapy she had during her battle with breast cancer was a bag of pink M&Ms.
“It was the very first care package I had received after being diagnosed and it came from the wife of one of my husband’s co-workers, those M&Ms were my therapy,” Powers said with a big smile. The other women said chocolate therapy had helped them as well.
From prayer cloths, to chocolate and even regular trips to the gym, each woman had to find something that worked for her.
“When I was first diagnosed, I loved to hear people say I’ve been (cancer) free five years or seven years or 20-years” Stanfield said. Ordering all of the information that she could from the American Cancer Society, Stanfield said she felt like if she had more knowledge of it, then she would be better prepared.
“You just feel so tender and vulnerable when you are diagnosed with cancer, having as much knowledge as I could on the subject made me feel stronger, Stanfield said.
The hardest part for each woman remains the possibility of regression. They are all survivors, but the battle is not always won right away.
For Stanfield being so close to her 10-year cancer free mark holds a very special meaning. Come next year, her doctor will ‘cut her free’, releasing her from her multiple checkups. While remission seems to be a magic word, every new day is a victory, another step towards the freedom from cancer. Yet, despite the peace that being a survivor brings, there will always be that tiny niggling in the pit of their stomachs each time they get a cold or some other ailment. Though faith is strong, they are human, and fear still remains, buried deep inside.
“Now any ailment worries me, there’s always that fear in the back of my mind,” Powers said.
“Every time I would get a cold or a sore throat I would go ‘uh oh, is the cancer back’,” Stanfield said.
“You just get a pit in your stomach, each time you have a check up and they find something they didn’t find before you think ‘oh no, here we go again’,” Hunley said, echoing the others thoughts.
Yet they continue on, each a pink warrior in her own right, marching strong through life, despite the cancer cards they were dealt.
For each woman, their battle was different. But their outcome the same.
If they were given the choice, none would change what was essentially the hardest struggle of their lives.
Powers, who has been a survivor for a little over two years now, will remain on medications for many years to come; yet she considers herself blessed.
“They found my cancer early on; it could have been a completely different story,” she said.
Hunley, who is only a few months away from her three-year mark, also counts herself incredibly blessed. Though she suffered through four intense months of chemotherapy and radiation, in the end she said she was a better person.
“Through my battle with cancer, I now have a better and closer relationship with Jesus Christ that I never had before,” Hunley said happily.
Stanfield, now a survivor for nine-years and the only of the three to endure a mastectomy, said she would not change anything about her life.
She said having breast cancer changes you, but it doesn’t define who you are.
“My husband looks beyond that to know me; though my body has gone through many changes, I’m still Grammy to my grandchildren,” Stanfield said.
Each survivor had the same message for other women out there who have or are survivors of breast cancer--Rely on God, never give up and there is life after cancer.
“I grasp a hold of God and the focus becomes on other people and other needs; life is beyond today,” Stanfield said firmly.