The faces of survival
By Jessica Milicevic | Photography by Wendy Yang
Posted: Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2012
Every woman has a different story. Some of those women have breast cancer and their stories are rewritten for them. The characters change, the plot thickens and sometimes it doesnt end with happily ever after.
For these five women, it took strength, endurance and a good dose of faith to get them through cancer. It wasnt always easy; in fact, most of the time, it wasnt. But they looked toward the future instead of behind them. They stopped asking why me and started wondering what they could do to help other women fight breast cancer.
Each of these women works in the breast cancer community to support other women in their battles. Whether its through support groups, newfound friendships, running the distance or raising money for research, they are all armored with love and passion, ready to help others face cancer head-on and emerge the victors.
We are linking arms with these women to fight cancer by helping them tell their stories. As Charlese Nolley, one of our profiled survivors, says, If my story can reach just one woman in time to beat cancer, then thats all that matters to me.
At 42 years old, Charlese Nolley had seen better days.
After more than 20 years of marriage, she and her husband were separating. The same year, her contract position at IBM expired and she was left without a job. And then, out of nowhere, a pain in her left breast began to keep her up at night.
I felt like my world was falling apart around me, says Nolley. But when the pain wouldnt go away, she said she knew it was time to be checked. She even recalls telling her mother, Im sure its nothing. Its not like I have cancer.
It took three separate visits to the doctor to find two tumors in Nolleys left breast. After visiting the radiologist, Nolley had nothing to do but wait. The day the phone call came, she recognized the number and became anxious.
I told myself I wasnt going to pick up the phone, Nolley says. You know when the its the radiologist calling, its not good.
As Nolley predicted, the news was not good: she had stage 2 ductal carcinoma in situ, or cancer of the milk ducts.
Nolley began treatment by having a mastectomy of her left breast in January 2008, but said it wasnt the surgery that was difficult, but removing the bandages afterwards, feeling empty and alone.
I closed my eyes while I was taking off the bandages, says Nolley. My mother was cheering me on, but I couldnt look. When I opened my eyes and saw the empty space and the staples, I sat down and cried for about 30 minutes straight. Then I pulled myself together and said, OK, shake it off. What I perceived as beauty was not really me. The real beauty is whats inside. It made me stronger. I thought, I got through this part. I can get through anything else.
Since 2008, Nolley has had eight surgeries, including two for breast reconstruction. She is still fighting cancer today, as her oncologist found another lump in the same breast this year and is requiring her to have 24 weeks of chemotherapy.
Im going to see the other side of this, she says. I think of cancer like the metamorphosis of a butterfly. It starts out kind of ugly, but if you wait, this beautiful, colorful creature emerges from it all. Thats me. Im the butterfly.
Jeanne Puckett admits to having a Type A personality. She likes order, likes to be in charge and call the shots. When breast cancer took that away from her, she wasnt quite sure what to do with herself.
She discovered she had stage 1 breast cancer in 1998, after she had the mammogram she had long been avoiding. Her mother was a breast cancer survivor, and Puckett says she was in total denial that it would ever happen to her.
I didnt want to tell anyone I was sick, because my aunt and my husbands aunt were both dying from cancer, she says. I didnt want to unload this on everyone just yet.
Puckett and her husband moved to Omaha, Neb., in January 1999, and she began the search for a physician. She needed someone she could trust because she wanted radical treatment: a bilateral mastectomy.
Even though I only had cancer in one breast, I wanted to have a double mastectomy because I didnt want to hear those words again, Puckett says. I was going to do this once and be done with it.
On Jan. 21, she had her mastectomy and her reconstruction surgery. She says she went through all the stages people go through when dealing with the physical and emotional pain of cancer.
At first there was fear, she says. With every ache and pain, I thought it was back. Then I went through the phase where I thought I could defy death. I went indoor skydiving and parasailing, even though I cant swim. I think its normal, but luckily Im over it. Im on the real path of life now.
For the past six years, Puckett had dedicated herself to volunteer work with BCC Rally, a local nonprofit that raises money and awareness for breast cancer. Shes done everything from making those famous hot pink ribbons to marketing and gathering corporate sponsors. Since its inception in 2004, the nonprofit has raised $719,000 for Susan G. Komen for the Cure in Charlotte and national research.
People always tell me Im so strong for being a breast cancer survivor, says Puckett. Im not a breast cancer survivor, though. Im an individual who had cancer and survived it. Im just me.
She is a single mother. She is the leader of the largest team in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk. Laura Renegar is also a survivor of one the worst forms of breast cancer, triple negative.
She was diagnosed one week before a speaking engagement during the wrap-up party for the Making Strides walk in 2011 (she was involved with the organization well before her own diagnosis). When she found the lump in her breast, she knew it was cancer, because her mother lost her battle with the disease in 1996.
I wasnt surprised when they told me I had breast cancer, she says. I was surprised it was triple negative. I was nervous because it only responds to chemo once. If you get cancer again, well, youre out of luck.
Renegar couldnt break the news during the speaking engagement. These were all people she knew personally through the walk and didnt know if shed make it through the speech. She wrote a letter to be read in her place and said by the end, everyone in the room was crying.
They all thought, Shes the team leader, and if it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone, says Renegar.
Her journey was a particularly difficult one, as both her breasts and ovaries were removed and she still required four rounds of chemotherapy.
Not only did I have to lose my breasts and hair, but I was being forced into early menopause, says Renegar. It was the ultimate attack on my girliness.
Through her five surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy, she still managed speaking engagements with Making Strides and the American Cancer Society. She began volunteering with breast cancer nonprofits to honor her mother, and she didnt want to let this stop her.
Through my hacking days, through my bald days, I was still speaking, she says. I powered through, like all women do.
In October that year, Renegar walked with her team in the Making Strides event. With 185 walkers, their largest team yet, they raised $26,000 for the nonprofit.
I had incredible support, she says. I had people rally around me that I wouldve never expected to. That and my faith got me through it; there was lots of prayer. I dont know how people do it without those things. I never could have.
In May 2009, Cheryl Patterson was in her radiologists office, seated and braced for bad news. When he told her the tests for breast cancer were positive, she actually got up and began to leave the room.
I thought he meant that I didnt have cancer, she says. You hear the word positive and you think its a good thing.
As a reverend at Myers Park Baptist Church, she had supported many women during their battles with cancer and said the territory felt somewhat familiar to her. She just never thought it would be her having to brace for the fight.
As a follower of Jesus, I have dedicated myself to a life of nonviolence and love, says Patterson. To use violent words to describe what I was going to have to do fight and battle just seemed very unnatural for me.
It was her breast cancer navigator, Kay Lackey with Presbyterian Healthcare, who explained to her what stage 4 or late-stage cancer meant.
When Kay told me I was stage 4, I said, Well, I dont feel like stage 4, says Patterson. Thats how Ive operated ever since. Its just a number. I never told anyone what stage I was in; I didnt want them to focus on it.
Through two years of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation, Patterson says she inherited a new group of friends, which enabled her to make it through the treatment.
These people your oncologist, your family doctor, your plastic surgeon, your navigator have to be your friends, she says. They have to be your partners in this journey to make it to the other side.
Pattersons journey through cancer became a literal one when she walked the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a 500-mile path through Spain. After reflecting on her life pre-cancer, she wondered what was left that she needed to do.
The answer came so quickly that I was both surprised and certain that it would become a part of my healing process, says Patterson. I needed to take a spiritual journey, and the Camino de Santiago is one that pilgrims of all faiths and backgrounds have traversed for over a thousand years.
With the help of her medical team and supportive friends who joined her, Patterson was able to walk 500 miles in 37 days. The last two weeks of her journey, she walked alone, thinking about the journey she had been on, reflecting on the one she was on now and wondering what may lie ahead.
Janice Moore was nursing her two-year-old daughter the year she should have gotten her first mammogram.
I thought it would be no big deal to put it off for a year, she says. I was young, only 37. When I had my first mammogram, I wasnt even concerned about it.
In November 2006, Moore got the call from her doctor with the news she had stage 1 breast cancer. She couldnt even speak.
I couldnt believe, first of all, that theyd call me with that kind of news, says Moore. Maybe thats why I was so surprised when I got the news. I just couldnt believe it came back positive.
After her lumpectomy, the surgeon realized there was more cancer than they previously saw on the biopsy. He recommended Moore have an immediate mastectomy followed by five rounds of chemotherapy.
She says the most difficult part was the chemotherapy, as it left her sick, weak and completely drained of energy. Moore says she couldnt have gotten through without the support of her family, who helped raise her two young daughters that year.
Its hard enough to be a mom of two young kids, but add cancer into the mix, and its near impossible, she says. I tried to stay as involved as I could, but it was difficult just to read them a book at bedtime. Luckily they werent really aware of what was happening, outside of what we told them.
To find support from other mothers fighting cancer, Moore sought out Carolina Breast Friends. During her first meeting, she found several women who were mothers, and this realization helped her get over the guilt she was feeling. She says she found so much inspiration from the group that after her chemotherapy was over, she continued to go and volunteer.
They had given so much to me that I wanted to pay it forward, she says.
Today, Moore is the president of Carolina Breast Friends, and under her leadership, the nonprofit found a new location in a restored house on Morehead Street.
Before, we were meeting in this small room in the back of a church, Moore says. The house not only gives us more space, but its become a place for women to come and relax during their most difficult times.Stylists note:
Autumns biggest trends give the season a polished finish and an extra touch of luxury. To accentuate femininity and add a touch of sophistication to your fall staples, try a peplum that will draw attention to your waist. Look for peplums on a basic pencil skirt or as an embellishment on a shift dress (as seen on Laura's individual look).Leather is also taking a turn for the feminine this fall. Instead of the typical black leather pants and brown bomber jackets, you can find an A-line skirt in a rich color or a quilted jacket in a light neutral. Look for combinations of soft fabrics such as silk or lace with leather for a chic look. For the seasons hottest colors, oxblood, a deep burgundy with a hint of red, can be used as an alternative to your basic black pieces. Tangerine orange is the statement color to add to your fall wardrobe, adding a great pop of color to brighten up your dark fall neutrals.Photography:
Wendy Yang Photography
www.wendyyangphotography.comPhoto shoot location:
McColl Center for Visual Art
721 N. Tryon St.
Charlton Alicea for Varji & Varji Salon & Spa
720 Governor Morrison St., Suite E-70
Jessica Holland Payne for Jeffre Scott Apothecary
607 Providence Road
www.jeffrescott.comFurniture provided by:
208 East Blvd.
www.alexanderscottinteriors.comDelivery service provided by:
728 Queens Road
www.antiquesabroad.comWardrobe provided by: Belk
813 Providence Road
Shops at Twin Oaks
1419 East Blvd., Suite G
A special thanks to the following organizations who submitted nominations for this piece:
American Cancer Society
Carolina Breast Friends
Levine Cancer Institute
Presbyterian Breast Center
The women's "red looks":Charlese:
Calvin Klein Suit, Jacket, $129.50; Pants, $74.50, Belk
DKNYC Blouse, $79, Belk
Gold Hoop Earrings, $68, Sloan
Sylvia Benson Necklace, $62, Belk
Stuart Weitzman Snakeskin Pumps, $335, BelkJeanne:
Jessica Simpson Dress, $138, Belk
Crystal Drop Earrings, $75, Sloan
Kate Spade Pups, $375, Neiman Marcus
Wire Bangle, $40, SloanLaura:
Anne Klein Dress, $139, Belk
Gold Leaf Necklace, $62, Fresh
Vince Camuto Pumps, $110, Belk
Oscar de la Renta Earrings, $155, Neiman MarcusCheryl:
DKNYC Pleated Dress, $159, Belk
Statement Necklace, $56, KLa
Michael Michael Kors Belt, $35.99, Belk
Stuart Weitzman Pumps, $375, Neiman MarcusJanice:
DKNYC Leather Skirt, $349, Belk
Tibi Silk Blouse, $298, Sloan
Bellisima Necklace, $100, Sloan
Rachel Zoe Earrings, $250, Neiman Marcus
Ivanka Trump Pumps, $140, Belk