Warrior Woman: Battling breast cancer, treasuring blessings
PRICEVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Pink lights illuminate the walkway leading to Traci DeWeese’s front door where a pink wreath hangs. The 45-year-old Priceville woman — known for her caring and giving spirit — installed the lights a week after undergoing her first chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.
“I was never a pink person. I am a fan of pink now, though,” DeWeese said, pointing to pink paintings, a pink necklace and a gray blanket with pink lettering. “One of my friends even gave me a pink superhero cape. Cancer is not going to be what gets me. I’m stronger than that. Yes, I’m a survivor, but I’m also a warrior. I’m a fighter.”
For DeWeese, that fight began in May when she became one of the 266,120 women estimated to be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the United States this year. One in eight women will develop breast cancer, a disease which claims the lives of more than 40,000 people each year.
“Everyone has been touched by breast cancer. Whether it is your mother, sister, wife, daughter, best friend, co-worker, everyone knows someone,” DeWeese said.
During October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, splashes of pink will appear on football fields, grocery store aisles and catwalks as sports teams, businesses, churches, fashion houses, first responders and hospitals raise awareness of the wide-reaching disease.
In north Alabama, groups organized bra painting parties, art auctions, fashion shows, walks and bunco parties. Two of the most popular events, attracting a combined 2,000 people and raising $100,000, are the Lee Lott Power of Pink Walk and the Power of Pink Luncheon and Fashion Show.
“These events are as much about celebrating life as they are about raising awareness and funds. We are there to celebrate the survivors and remember those that we lost,” said Noel Lovelace, president of the Decatur Morgan Hospital Foundation, which organizes the walk set for Oct. 14 and fashion show scheduled for Oct. 23.
Proceeds from both events will benefit the hospital’s breast health and cancer services, including providing free and discounted mammograms for women in need.
“Money should not be an issue whether someone receives a mammogram or not,” Lovelace said.
DeWeese, who watched her mother battle breast cancer in 2012, understands intimately the importance of mammograms.
“I have had them religiously for years. My last one was in November. They have all come back clean,” DeWeese said.
But in early May, three months after undergoing gastric sleeve surgery and losing 45 pounds, DeWeese felt a softball-sized knot under her right arm. Perhaps she pulled a muscle working out, she thought. When the knot didn’t go away, she scheduled an appointment with her doctor, who conducted a mammogram and ultrasound and referred her to Dr. Randy Buckner.
Two biopsies revealed the presence of breast cancer.
“It was a Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. I was asleep and my phone was on vibrate. I don’t even know how I heard it,” DeWeese said. “He said, ‘Traci, this is Dr. Buckner, can you talk?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘You have breast cancer.’ I did not think it would be cancer. Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Amy Sherrill woke up that Tuesday morning with DeWeese, her cousin and close friend, on her mind. She dialed DeWeese’s number and heard the news.
“That was a hard day. It took her a few hours to process it. But after that, she had a warrior attitude. There is no way she is going to let this beat her. She is one of the strongest people I know,” Sherrill said.
Three days after hearing the words “You have breast cancer,” DeWeese sat in the office of Dr. Sammy Becdach, the same oncologist who treated her mother. She underwent a PET scan, MUGA scan and MRI, which revealed two spots in her right breast — one cancerous, one not — that did not show up in a mammogram.
On June 6, she started an aggressive chemotherapy treatment.
“They call the drug the Red Devil. I’ve experienced some nausea and neuropathy. I’m achy and tired most of the time, but I can fake it good. It’s nothing I can’t deal with though,” DeWeese said.
After her second of four sessions with the Red Devil, DeWeese’s hair started falling out in clumps. She scheduled an appointment with her stylist, Julie Burleson, to get her hair — what she considered her defining feature — shaved.
“I’ve always had lots of long, thick hair. But, there are not a lot of things I can control right now and I could control how and when I lost my hair. I cried twice, but it was empowering,” DeWeese said.
Instead of wearing a wig, she decided to embrace her bald head.
“I’ve been rocking it ever since. My close friends have told me, ‘Your hair doesn’t define you, you define you.’ That means so much to me,” DeWeese said. “Total strangers come up to me to say, ‘You are so beautiful.’ A lady at the McDonald’s drive-thru told me that the other day. It made my whole day.”
She described those comments as “little blessings.”
Ever since her diagnosis, DeWeese, on a daily basis, experienced “little blessings” — from a neighbor mowing her lawn to the wooden cross a nurse gave her on her first day of treatment. There are the pink and white pompoms from her neighbor’s daughter, the pink rosary beads handmade by her friend’s mother and the pictures a photographer took of DeWeese and best friends before she lost her hair. She writes down each act of kindness in a pink notebook.
“I get chill bumps when I think about the outpouring of love and genuine support I have received. Every single person on this list has made me stronger and made a difference in my life,” DeWeese said.
The blessings include a gray blanket with “911 has my back” in pink lettering, a Decatur Fire & Rescue “Cancer Fighter” hat and a basket of items from Morgan County 911, where DeWeese works as a supervisor.
“I could retire, but I don’t plan to. I plan on going back. This is not going to be what gets me. I’m stronger than that. I’m on disability right now, but that is just until I kick cancer’s butt,” DeWeese said.
After five more weekly chemotherapy sessions, DeWeese will undergo another MRI to determine whether or not she will need more treatment. If no cancer activity exists, she will have a double mastectomy and reconstruction.
DeWeese’s mother, who had a mastectomy of her left breast in 2012, is once again battling breast cancer. She will begin her chemotherapy treatments this month.
“My mom waited to tell me her cancer was back until I had my plan. I told her, ‘Next time, instead of having breast cancer together, let’s go on a trip.’ Once I found about hers, I started telling everybody. She is more of a private person and was a bit hesitant at first, but she’s OK with it now. The more people praying for you, the better off you will be,” DeWeese said.
Both the Falkville Police Department and Decatur Fire & Rescue are selling T-shirts to raise funds for DeWeese. Other events scheduled to honor DeWeese include a Cookin’ for a Cure in memory of Peggy McCulloch at The BBQ Smokehouse in Priceville on Oct. 14 at 2:30 p.m. and Barbells for Boobs at Golden Ape CrossFit in Decatur on Oct. 20 at 9 a.m.
“I believe in God, I believe in the power of prayer and I believe things happen for a reason. The only reason I found the lump is because I had the surgery. It was a God thing. I truly believe there is a reason I am fighting cancer. Maybe it is so I can share my story and encourage other women to get checked. If they are scared, I will go with them. You are not alone,” DeWeese said.
Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml