Beating the Odds

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 8, 2005

The statistics can be daunting. One out of every eight women will develop breast cancer. It's the most common form of cancer among women except for non-melanoma skin cancer. Breast cancer takes the lives of about 40,000 American women every year. Few families have not been touched by this disease.

But there is good news. Breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence.

Here are the stories of two women who have beaten the odds.

'I basically felt OK'

"In 1993 I found the lump in my breast. I'd signed up for a 21-day trip I just didn't want to miss, so I went on that and didn't worry about it," Vivian Killingsworth, of Greenville says. Then in her mid-60s, the widow and mother of two daughters hoped the lump would simply "go away."

"After all, I basically felt OK," she says with a shrug and a smile.

However, a second lump soon joined the first one, and Killingsworth knew she had to see a doctor.

"It turned out the smaller of the two lumps was malignantŠthe cancer was pretty advanced," Killingsworth said.

The senior citizen underwent surgery and six "difficult" months of chemotherapy. She has been cancer-free for more than a decade now.

"During my treatment, I was hospitalized twice for problems with my platelets and blood. I have to say it was not an easy thing. My chemo was very bad…they have come a long way in the past 12 years, though. I understand treatments are much easier to undergo now," Killingsworth says.

'Saved for a reason'

And Killingsworth is pretty up-to-date when it comes to what current chemotherapy patients are undergoing.

"I felt the Lord had saved me for a reason. I'm a Reach for Recovery volunteer with the American Cancer Society," Killingsworth explains.

"Bennie Payne and I both go and see a lot of people who have been diagnosed and who need further information and, maybe, someone encouraging to talk to who has been in their shoes."

During her own battle with breast cancer, Killingsworth recalls her daughters, Sylvia Daniel and Beth Thomas, being faithful cheerleaders in their mother's fight against the disease. "And you need that," the cancer survivor recalls.

"I had two times where I got really down. Once was when I was washing my hair and it all came out in clumps in my hands.

The second time, I was trying to put on this wrap dress. Without a prosthetic breast it just wouldn't fit properly, and I got so frustrated.

When you're going through (cancer treatment), you will have times like this," Killingsworth says philosophically.

Supportive friends and family make all the difference, she adds.

"My two girls would not let me get too low. They'd say 'Put on your lipstick and make up your face everyday, Mama.' If I couldn't eat my meal because it was too difficult to chew, it would be put in a blender so I could drink it. They were wonderful," she recalls.

These days, the Cancer Control volunteer leads an active life, traveling and attending XYZ at First United Methodist and Triple S at First Baptist, where she is an associate Sunday School teacher. She helps organize and emcees the annual Cancer Survivors Luncheon each spring, and proudly marches with her fellow survivors each May as part of the ACS Relay for Life.

Once a year, she goes for her regular check as a former cancer patient.

"I would tell every woman over 40 to get that mammogram every year. Do your self-exams every month," Killingsworth, who admits she had never undergone a mammogram prior to her diagnosis, says.

For those who have been diagnosed with the disease, she has these words of wisdom:

"Attitude is number one. Somehow, I never believed I was going to die. You have to believe you are going to beat this. It is possible."

Against the odds

Breast cancer usually strikes women over the age of 50. Less than 0.3 percent of breast cancer patients are under the age of 30.

Starla Jones was one of the exceptions to the rule.

Currently school counselor at Fort Dale Academy, Jones was only 27 when she discovered a lump in her breast in 1990.

She was a newlywed with a new job, new home and new life.

The young woman, who had no history of breast cancer in her family, never expected it would happen to her.

"The lump was growing larger and it got painful. I had to have the mass removed; it was malignant," Jones says.

Less than two months after her wedding, Jones' promising new life was one of "uncertainty and despair."

"I remember asking my mother two questions: 'Was I going to die?' and 'Would I be able to have children?' She told me, 'No,' and 'yes.'"

Jones worked out a schedule where she could work part-time each day and travel back and forth for her cancer treatments, both chemotherapy and radiation.

Faith, family, friends

She says she couldn't have done it without the support of friends, family, co-workers and church members.

"The staff at my school was so understanding. And my husband, Marty – he loved me bald-headed, scarred, depressed and weak. Church friends helped me with cards, prayers and meals," Jones recalls.

Putting on a game face was important in her fight against the disease, she says.

"A cosmetologist friend of mine cut my hair, helped me shop for a wig, and made suggestions for my daily routine. She told me to put on makeup every day even when you don't really feel like it," Jones explains.

The cancer survivor of 15 years gives the greatest credit to her personal faith. "It was Jesus who provided me with family, friends, doctors, means and opportunities to make this journey possible," she stresses.

Life post-cancer has required some adjustments.

"I put on a few pounds. The prosthetics became like another part of me. My hair came back a different color and texture.

Now it's longer again and thanks to chemicals, it's back to original color," she says with a smile.

Her mother's prediction came true. Jones gave birth to a healthy son, Dylan, who is now 11.

Because her cancer was so advanced at such as early age, Jones says her doctors consider her case "a miracle."

'winning one battle at a time'

It seems being "against the odds" hasn't changed for Jones.

In the past ten months, she has undergone two unsuccessful surgeries for breast reconstruction. "It was something I put off for a long time for one reason or anotherŠ(the results) have been very frustrating," she admits.

The shadow of cancer can loom long after the disease has gone.

"I am still having to deal with breast cancer when I thought I wouldn't have to think of it again. It still affects my life, my outlook and works heavily on my positive attitude," Jones says.

"Still, the failures I have encountered over the past ten months are rare and far from the norm."

Like Killingsworth, Jones emphasizes the importance of yearly mammograms, along with self breast exams and pap smears for early detection of cancer.

For those who are diagnosed, Jones stresses the importance of a positive attitude and strong spirit.

"Never think of breast cancer as a death sentence because it's not. Don't roll over and let it get to you. Stand up, be aggressive," she says.

Staying as active as possible is important, Jones says. "Don't push yourself too hard because you will need your rest, but don't let breast cancer keep you from living life to the fullest. Treat it as a bump in the road of life you will get over," she encourages.

As for the best way the average person can help fight against cancer, Jones says it's by "winning one battle at a time."

"Find one person in your family, church, or community and be their encourager, their strength, their friend. Taking the time to get personally involved with someone combating cancer can make all the difference."