"Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all." - Emily Dickinson
When you are diagnosed with cancer, you go through a myriad of feelings, am I going to live, how long will I live, how bad is it and the list goes on and on. A year before I was diagnosed my mother-in-law had succumbed to breast cancer after battling it for a year. My aunt on my mother's side had been diagnosed a few years before but suffered no ill effects and succumbed from Parkinson's disease and not cancer.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, then my mother's other sister was diagnosed and then my brother's wife was diagnosed. It was like breast cancer had invaded every aspect of my life. So many thoughts went through my head. I also wondered how could this be, was there any more of it in our family that I did not know about...
Yes, there was, I found out as I began talking with my mother. My maternal great-grandmother had died of breast cancer in the late 1800's before there was much known about cancer at all, much less breast cancer. I found out about other cousins on my mother's side of the family that had also been through the breast cancer experience, one of which was 16 years old at the time but it did not defeat her as she is in her seventies now. But there is one cousin whose story has brought me more hope and inspiration than I can ever imagine for hers is truly what I call a "story of hope".
Emma was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 33 years old. The cancer was in one of her lymph glands, which resulted in a radical mastectomy. "There was no chemotherapy back then, only the knife," she said. Talking about her cancer is not something that comes easily for her.
"A long time ago people were ashamed," she says. Which is why she said most people died because they "waited too late." Emma said, "I can remember when I went into surgery, there were so many young doctors there to watch the operation." The doctors told her that she was cut so terribly that she was in the hospital for six weeks.
After she had the surgery, there were no follow-up treatments, only a few x-rays. "I didn't heal for eight months and I finally had to go to New Orleans. I could not do anything with my arm. I had it strapped down to my side but it didn't bother me," she says. Emma would not believe the doctors when they told her she would not be able to use her arm again and so she began to exercise the arm herself (and this was long before we had Reach to Recovery volunteers to tell us to exercise our arms).
Her husband helped her to raise her arm every day and she eventually regained use of it. Several years later her husband died and she was left to raise their three young sons all alone. Emma has done a little bit of everything from working in the fields, helping run the dairy farm that they owned and finally teaching 4th grade for 40 years. Cancer never got in her way. Emma says that she had an aunt die of cancer and credits that for saving her own life. The aunt that she speaks of is my great-grandmother whom I spoke of earlier in this article. There have been other cancer survivors in her immediate family since. Her granddaughter, a survivor of over 20 years and also a great-granddaughter. I am sure her story has given them much hope too. "I know science will find a cure someday" she has said.
Emma is the one that keeps me hopeful year after year since my diagnosis. For what I have saved till now is truly the best part of the story for Emma was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 33 in 1928 and today in 1999, Emma is 104 years old. A story of hope? Yes, I would say so, wouldn't you?
Lila Jane Givens Miller