By K. Melissa Burton
Photos by Wales Hunter
Change is seldom easy.
Be it welcome or unwelcome, slow or abrupt, transformations require effort. But just as the life of the humble caterpillar is never the same once it enters its cocoon, these women found that cancer can be equally transforming. Each of these six women stared down breast cancer with an iron resolve and refused to let it beat them. What seemed like a suffocating end to life as they knew it turned out to be the chrysalis within which beauty was created. And like butterflies, they are thriving examples of delicate strength.
Lori Shea, Louisville
Survivor: one year
When Lori Shea`s mother found out her daughter had breast cancer, she pointedly said, `Lori, you`re too damn mean to let this take you out!â€
Like a true Southern woman, Shea took the remark as the spirited compliment it was. She then plowed into chemo treatments determined to make her mother`s words truthful. After six months, Shea then chose to undergo a voluntary bilateral mastectomy. While the surgery may have been emotionally traumatizing for some women, Shea took a much more pragmatic approach. "I told my doctor, 'Boobs are for babies, and I`ve already had my two.'"
Blessedly, Shea`s stamina seemed to return more quickly than expected, and her energy and lifestyle are as busy as ever. In fact, her two sons are almost baffled by her desire to get out and do things. "Last summer, I was too sick to get out," Shea explains. "But this summer, we were constantly on the run going and doing things together. My boys were like, 'Mom, you`re always wanting to go!` It was our do-over summer."
Not only has the breast cancer experience helped Shea to savor every moment with her boys, it`s also helped her develop a sense of serenity about life`s day-to-day trials. A clean house and immaculate lawn no longer hold the importance they once did, and stoplights that used to be aggravating are seen as God`s way of protecting her from some unforeseen danger ahead. She notices the beauty of nature more readily and appreciates the outdoors, even going so far as to take an uncharacteristic camping trip.
"Cancer has helped me develop patience," Shea concedes. `I used to be high-strung, but now I`m more laid-back. Everybody says, ˜Don`t sweat the small stuff.` But this is not sweating the small stuff at an entirely different level."
Shea also has developed a deeper sense of compassion and wants others to understand that the battle with breast cancer doesn`t end with the final treatment. Rather, it takes a while to bounce back physically and emotionally. `Some people even experience some personality changes," Shea notes.
Yet, those who know Shea say the alterations in her are overwhelmingly positive. Good friend Sharon Robertson has been by Shea`s side from the beginning and is obviously proud of her friend`s success and the person she`s become. "Lori is more patient," Robertson says. "Through this, she`s recognizing her own strength."
It would seem Shea`s mother was only partially correct.
Pat Hopper, Russell Springs
Survivor: 10 years
Pat Hopper, humble and reticent by nature, was always was happy to be behind the scenes. But since her experience with breast cancer 10 years ago, Hopper agrees she`s not the same person she used to be â€¦ she`s better.
The diagnosis came after her annual mammogram. She had felt no lumps. Nothing about her health was amiss. However, she had lost her grandfather and two aunts to the disease, so the devastating impacts of cancer on a family were all too familiar to her. Hopper admits to feeling a cold numbness at the doctor`s words, but dreaded breaking the news to one person more than any other. `Because so many people in our family had already been lost to cancer, it was very hard to tell my mother,â€ she says.
But Hopper`s case is a testament to the importance of yearly checkups and early detection. Because of her vigilance, the tumor had reached only the size of a grain of salt. She was able to avoid the much-dreaded chemo treatments, although a regimen of radiation treatments was required, leaving Hopper physically tired and emotionally drained.
Yet through the ordeal, Hopper began to see herself as a stronger person. She became even closer to her husband, family and friends and started to see that she was capable of more than she`d ever dreamed. Since her recovery, she and husband Kenny took the plunge and built their dream homeâ€”a log cabin on a farm complete with horses and a few other beloved animals. `We realized we weren`t getting any younger,â€ she says, `so why wait?â€
Two years after being diagnosed, Hopper took a full-time sales position at Stephens Pipe & Steel, her longtime place of employment. It was a bold step upward. `I`m not sure I would have had the confidence to do that before,â€ she says.
Hopper also has become a champion for cancer research by organizing a Relay for Life team where she works and has spearheaded efforts for her company to have a `Pink Out Day' every October to raise awareness. Her involvement is evidence that cancer does change a person, but often in positive ways. "I realize through this that I have something to give," she says. "I want anyone who has been diagnosed to know that cancer is not the end. It`s the beginning. I`m proof of that."
Amy Brookbank, Wilder
Survivor: three years
Amy Brookbank didn`t know she was a steel magnolia. Prior to being diagnosed with cancer, the youthful-looking, blond beauty says she struggled with self-esteem. Yet, in the time since, she`s come to agree with the late Gilda Radner when she says, "If it wasn`t for the downside, cancer would be the best thing and everyone would want it."
After being diagnosed in June 2008, Brookbank`s mind flashed to her maternal grandmother, who`d lost her battle with breast cancer when Brookbank was only 10. She`d vowed then not to let breast cancer steal anyone away from her. Even so, she was overwhelmed by the cadre of family and friends who enveloped her with their support. Colleagues told her she was inspirational, and her music-minded son even wrote a song for his band. The love helped carry her through the hard times, but Brookbank considers the attention slightly misplaced. `I don`t feel inspirational,â€ she says. "I just feel like someone who had to fight.â€
And fight she did, but Brookbank battled with dazzle.
At first, she didn`t want to touch the lump in her breast to see if it was shrinking. But her doctor told her to name it, claim it and fight it. So she did. The lump became known as `Marlaâ€ as Brookbank bore through treatments. After losing her hair, she eventually purchased three very different wigs and named them as well. Auburn-colored `Brandiâ€ was her night-on-the-town headgear, while `Davy Crockettâ€ had the honors of everyday wear. The least poplar of the three was `Joe Dirt,â€ which Brookbank admits looked a bit like an early 1990s mullet, but was great to wear with a ball cap.
Following the last of her chemo treatments, friends threw her a No Mo` Chemo party to celebrate the milestone. A little more than five months later, Brookbank was more than happy to celebrate her 40th birthday. In fact, she`s proud of every birthday now.
`Ironically, this experience helped me understand my self-worth,â€ Brookbank explains. Her newfound confidence has inspired her to help others struggling with cancer, through events such as the Making Strides walk. Her first walk was completed when she was only one-third of the way through her `tour of duty.â€ Despite her shortness of breath and fatigue, she plowed through because she wanted to show cancer it couldn`t win, not even for one night.
Yes, cancer has a downside, but because of it, Amy Brookbank has found her upswing.
Mildred Throckmorton, Winchester
Survivor: three years
Mildred Throckmorton may have been 72 when she received her cancer diagnosis, but her attitude and determination were an example to women half her age.
"I never felt this was 'The Big C,`" she contends. "I just took it as it came."
In June 2008, her doctor found a small lump about the size of the end of a finger. Five months later, Throckmorton and her husband moved from Lebanon to Winchester to be nearer to family. Less than a week following the move, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy.
"We only had time to unpack and put a few pictures on the walls," she says with a laugh. "But I was never down, depressed or fearful."
This ability to `take it as it came'was due largely to her faith. As a devout Christian, Throckmorton says her cancer experience was accompanied by prayer and scripture reading. "If you want to be a prayer warrior, just go through the cancer routine," she notes.
Not only has Throckmorton`s faith been bolstered, but she says her life has transformed in other ways, such as how she prioritizes her activities. `All important things are people-related,â€ she says. Among those activities where she places her time is the Reach to Recovery program. There she talks to other breast cancer victims who need an understanding ear or the voice of experience. "I get a kick from it! It`s a ministry," she explains. "I never had that. But nobody should be without it."
She`s also become a staunch advocate for women`s health. Throckmorton has been involved in two medical studies at the University of Kentucky. The first is called the Sister Study, which examines the environmental and genetic risk factors of breast cancer. Throckmorton is one of six women in the study, five of whom have had some form of cancer.
The second study, begun in 1987 by Dr. John R. van Nagell Jr., was a free ovarian screening designed to show the advantages of regular screening and early detection. As it turns out, when Throckmorton got a close friend involved, the results showed her friend suffered from a variety of ovarian issues and was able to seek treatment. Throckmorton`s prodding and the free screening essentially saved the woman`s life.
"I`ve learned through this there are people who need help that I can give," she says. "I`ve always tried to do things for people, but coming though this, I have something to offer others."
Leah Rafferty, Owensboro
Survivor: seven years
When Leah Rafferty`s doctor found a lump during her annual mammogram in 2004, Rafferty was understandably taken aback. But according to her, the experience has not only made her a stronger individual, but even in the difficult times, it sowed seeds of blessings that are still being reaped today.
Following her diagnosis, Rafferty and family decided on a treatment program that included radiation and chemo treatments. Yet, in that series of medical decisions was also the conscious choice to surround herself in prayer, not only from family, but also from friends and community members. She firmly believes this made a significant difference in her ability to plow through the rough days.
"You feel those prayers," she says with conviction. "Otherwise, you`d just stay on the bottom."
Not only has Rafferty`s spiritual life been strengthened from the ordeal, but she also has come to see how she can use it to help others. "First, I`m a big advocate of having those yearly mammograms! My lump was not felt. But because it showed up in the mammogram, it was caught at stage one."
She hopes this advocacy and the knowledge she`s obtained about the disease will help make her four granddaughters more conscious of it when they get older, but for now, she`s putting her energies into helping other breast cancer sufferers by being an area coordinator for the Reach to Recovery program. "I can relate to other women who are going through this," Rafferty says. "I want them to know they will feel better. There is light at the end of the tunnel."
Beyond helping others suffering with cancer, Rafferty admits she lives life more abundantly than before. Material items are unimportant, but time with people, especially family, is paramount. Not only does she bask in moments with her grandchildren, but she feels that time with her husband has greater value.
"He stood by me through it all, and going through this together made us stronger," she says with a smile. "We`ve been married 38 years. I say, â€˜He`s 38 years good!"
And she says that even her habits have changed to align with her value system. A lifelong reader, Rafferty used to delay delving into her books until everything else was complete. But now, she doesn`t force herself to get everything picture perfect before settling in with a great book. `I take time daily to read regardless of the house,â€ she says, `and I enjoy it.â€
Marie Amburgey, Mallie
Survivor: 16 years
Marie Amburgey knew she was going to live to raise two young girls. At just 33 and with no family history of breast cancer, she found a lump through a self-exam that doctors thought was not likely to be cancerous, but Amburgey knew her body better than anyone.
"I sensed it was something more serious. But I also felt God telling me that whatever it was, I`d make it through. It would be all right," she says.
And all right it was. Although the lump did turn out to be cancer that required a lumpectomy, chemo and radiation, Amburgey says her life is richer for the experience.
Through the ordeal, needs were continuously met, whether it be a few dollars required for an unexpected expense or a place to stay in Lexington while undergoing treatment. People were always there offering prayer, hope and practical help.
"Things happen that can either make you stronger or tear you down," says Amburgey. "You can become better or you can become bitter."
Amburgey chose to become better--not only in the physical sense but in other ways as well. Although she always was a strong individual, the ordeal reinforced her resolve to be all she was created to be. She says that her faith in God increased, and her tendency to be a workaholic lessened. As a wife and mother, she lets God`s spirit lead her in decisions--something she tried to do before her diagnosis but is more attuned to now. "I find I can put that philosophy into practice better," Amburgey explains.
Her daughters agree. Now in their 20s, Jamie and Beth watched their mother`s struggle and say their own value on life increased from the ordeal. Both are passionate about educating women about the importance of breast exams and agree their mother`s struggle gave them a different outlook. "You have to live each day to the fullest because there is no promise of tomorrow," says Jamie. `Carpe diem!â€
Since her recovery, Amburgey has been on a mission to reach out to others who are facing the battle with breast cancer. A volunteer with Reach to Recovery since 1997, she`s an area trainer with a message. She wants women and men to know there is always hope. "The word 'cancer' doesn`t mean 'terminal.' Caught in early stages, breast cancer is very curable. It`s not a death sentence," Amburgey says.