Cancer survivors' stories show strength, tell tales of learning what's truly important

| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, 12:05 a.m.

If you want a sob story, look elsewhere.

Not that women don't cry when breast cancer strikes. The news can crush them, twist their lives into a question mark, drop them into denial.

But patients say beyond those immediate reactions, their stories show what it means to survive, grow stronger and rethink what's important in life.

The life lessons are beyond any price.

“It helped me find my voice,” said Sharon Herring-Turner, 61, of Perry Hilltop. A partial mastectomy in June took her right breast, chemotherapy drained her stamina and surgery made it tough to drive. Yet the mother of two learned to speak her mind, knowing “you might not see that person again, or I might not be here to say what I need to say.”

The removal of Darshell Bennett's breasts to cancer “opened my mind to the world a lot” and liberated her from small stressors.

“It's changed me because if I die tomorrow, I would die happy,” said Bennett, 39, of Penn Hills. “I'm just happy that I'm alive. I feel happy, and I'm blessed, and I don't worry about it. I take more time for myself.”

Following her diagnosis, Tia Baker, 42, of the Hill District said she began to understand what her mother always said: We teach what we need to learn. She imagines her cancer arose, in a sense, from unresolved ills.

“When we don't heal ourselves on a mental or spiritual level, it manifests itself on a physical level,” said Baker, a mother of three.

A primary care provider told Baker that she was too young to worry about breast cancer when she sought a mammogram. Screening results in November 2010 revealed a cancerous mass. She underwent six weeks of radiation and lumpectomy, but opted out of chemotherapy.

Family ties

Black women once shied from discussing or even acknowledging their breast cancer. Sometimes their families helped cover it up, spread excuses. Fear, stigma and shame about the disease ran deep.

“That still exists today. Maybe not as much,” said Baker's mother, LaVerne Baker Hotep of Turtle Creek. A Pittsburgh radio broadcaster, Hotep long has worked with the American Cancer Society, the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime and other groups to raise breast-cancer awareness among black women.

Until her daughter's diagnosis, “I never considered it was something I'd have to deal with close up, especially not my daughter.”

She grasped it on an intellectual level, but found it difficult emotionally.

“You think, how are you going to get through this?” Hotep said.

Baker knew the answer right away.

“Instantly, I knew I was going to come through this,” she said. “I wasn't going to die from this. That was it.”

Baker's strategy echoes stories from other survivors across the region. She made a conscious decision — opting to live, she said.

“We can decide, ‘I'm not going to die from this,' or we can decide, ‘I'm not going to fight anymore,' ” Baker said. “We do get to choose whether or not we want to get better.”

Her cancer even taught her son a lesson, he said.

“It can hit anybody,” said Brandon Baker, 25, of the Hill District. “It brings your family together when a tragedy happens. It shouldn't be like that, but it is.”

Bennett was embarrassed at first to tell her parents. She didn't know what to say. A frequent question — “Why me?” — never struck her. She underwent a double mastectomy in February.

“I'd rather it be me than someone else in my family,” she said. “I knew I could survive it. I'm a fighter.”

Still, chemotherapy nearly reduced her to tears, she said.

Her mother, Arlene Murray, 54, was angry at the world.

Her first thought: “My only child is going to die,” said Murray of Canonsburg. “That was my biggest fear. It's still my fear.”

Murray hovers over Bennett — wants to know where her daughter is, what she's doing. Text messages and phone calls multiply. Bennett said she learned “to accept that.”


Herring-Turner's cancer brought her son and daughter, Robert Herring, 31, and Dominique Herring, 28, closer.

“They seem now to talk more and communicate with each other more. They seem to get along better,” Herring-Turner said.

The second-oldest of 11 siblings, she still views her late father as her hero. He died of lung cancer in 1999, about six to seven years after his diagnosis.

He stayed on the move even during chemotherapy, Herring-Turner recalled. He took the bus to and from his treatments, carrying himself as a soldier, she said.

Human resilience rises to the forefront when a potentially fatal disease materializes, support workers said.

“I think when you are faced with something like breast cancer or other serious conditions, you dig deep for strength that maybe you didn't know you had,” said Angela Ford, a support-group facilitator for Bloomfield-based Cancer Caring Center.

Women with strong support from friends and family may be “even more successful in drawing on that strength because they have people reminding them, ‘You're a strong woman,' ” Ford said.

On a warm August evening, Hotep sat on her daughter's porch and remembered the devastation brought by the 2010 diagnosis.

“You were amazing through that,” she said to Baker, recalling her courage and grace. “Your strength was just incredible — incredible — through that. … I knew there were times you had fears you didn't express. But I think your courage helped the family through the process.”

Baker paused before acknowledging: “It definitely came from a place I didn't know was there.”

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