Survivor Stories

WELCOME to our new Survivor Stories Leadership Team:  Co-Chairs Kristen Carlton and Beth Leatherman;  Lead Writer and founder Emily Price and writer Amy Doser; and photographer Patrick Cox.  These courageous volunteers have all been touched by cancer.  Their passion and willingness to share their talents brings these intimate stories of survivorship and connections to us all.

Follow along with #survivorspark one Sunday each month as we highlight a new local survivor’s portrait, experience & words of wisdom. You can find us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. Know someone who has experienced cancer & should be featured in the Survivor Stories? Send us a message

Want to know more about the Survivor Stories creative collaboration? Read commentary  from the editor & photographer (also survivors & friends) about the project, produced exclusively for the Cancer Survivors Park Alliance and it's vision to change the way we live with cancer.

Survivor Stories: 2018

Survivor Stories: 2017

Survivor Stories: 2016

Survivor Stories: 2015

 

Robin Wilson//50 years old//survivor of breast cancer//wife to James//mother to Blakely and Riley//pediatric dentist//secretary for the All In Foundation//board of the Cancer Society//lover of photography//two dogs, Millie and Hunter (after Hunter Renfrow)//Clemson fan//volunteer


Interview by Amy Doser//Photo by Patrick Cox 

“I was diagnosed in 2011 with breast cancer and there’s really no history of it in my family.” 

“I kept having this pain under my right arm and I wondered what in the world is that. The pain, I’m a tough nut, but the pain would come, and it would go. Finally, after about 3 months, I texted one of my best friends, who also happens to be my OBGYN, and I said what are we going to do? Within 5 minutes her nurse was calling me, and I had an ultrasound and a mammogram scheduled. It wasn’t even time for my mammogram yet. Because of my dense breast tissue, they didn’t really see anything. Then they said let’s get an ultrasound and that is when they picked up a little something that they thought was suspicious. And then around a week later, I did a biopsy that confirmed the breast cancer so, it was a blessing that it was discovered.”

“I got a phone call on Monday morning and the following Wednesday, after having about 8-10 appointments, I had my double mastectomy, which was about 9 days later.”

“One of my scariest things was not the surgery. I did end up having to do 4 rounds of chemo, it was precautionary, but Dr. Gluck looked at me and said, “if you were my wife, I would ask you to do it.” That was the second time I cried. The first was when I found out I had cancer and the second was when I found out I had to do chemo. You can’t let this stuff stop your life. You have to keep rolling and do the best you can.” 

“My temperament is not passive or quiet. I have that temperament of let’s get it done. So, when I found out that I had it I said, “Nobody needs breast tissue to survive, to feel like a woman, so I don’t need that. I want both of them gone.’ And they were like hold on let’s go over all of this. I had made up my mind. I would listen, but it wasn’t changing.”

“I have two daughters, Blakely, 21, and Riley, 19. You know there were a few little tears at first and they were worried. I looked at them and said, ‘ladies, mama’s got this, so let’s do what we’ve got to do.’”

“You know when you first find out about breast cancer you go, “why me?” And immediately I thought “why not me?” When you have people who you love and people who love you and you have that support system and that mindset, while none of this is easy, and it’s not something you would raise your hand and say, “pick me I want to do this,” you just feel that you can go through it.” 

“My word of the year is “intentional”. Be intentional. Intentional in what you say, in how you act. This whole mess it’s what helped me on the other side to just be more intentional with my time, with who I spend it with, with what I do, with what I say, with how I act. Because you never know who’s watching and you never really know the ramifications of that. Live life to the fullest because it might be gone tomorrow. You have to do the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s the take home message for anybody.” 

“I hate cancer. I pray that one day we’ll all be able to be cured from it.”

Interview by Amy Doser//Photo by Patrick Cox
To read more of the Survivors Series visit: http:// www.cancersurvivorspark.org /survivor-series.php

 

Kiyania Williams//28 years old//survivor of ovarian cancer//daughter//sister//psychiatric technician//getting a Masters Degree in Counseling//traveler 

Interview by Amy Doser//Photo by Patrick Cox 

“I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March of 2015.   I have been cancer free since my first surgery a month after I was diagnosed.” 

“Looking back at it now, I had the symptoms but at the time I didn’t know what it was.     My mom was like there is just no way that you’re sleepy all this time.   I woke up late one night and was vomiting at 3 o’clock in the morning.  I just thought it was a stomach virus and so I went to work, but later that evening I looked at my mom and said, I need to go to the doctor.   She knew something was wrong because I never ask to go to the doctor.   When I got to the doctor, I was feeling excruciating abdominal pain.  They ran tests, scans, did blood work and they thought it was my appendix.  I was sent to Greenville Memorial Hospital. They did a scan and an ultrasound and found out there was a cyst on my ovary.”   

“They were telling me I could go home for 2 weeks and take some medication and see if it will dissolve or I could have emergency surgery, but there was a 50% chance I would lose my ovary.  I thought, well I’m tired of this pain, so I’m just going to get the surgery.  When they went in, the ovarian cyst was actually a tumor and the cancer had eaten at my ovary.  My first surgery was in March and the second surgery for the second ovary was 6 months after that.”  

“As a child, I always thought that if I had a life changing moment or devastating news given to me about my health I wouldn’t tell anybody.   That was always my thing, I’m not telling anybody.” 

“I don’t know what I would have done without the support of my family and my boyfriend.  Looking back on it, when I was diagnosed, I wouldn’t change anything about it.  I know people say I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.  I know I wouldn’t wish this experience on anybody, but I think I needed this experience because it gave me a new perspective on life.” 

“I was able to do a health symposium maybe 6 months after my surgery where 90+ people came out.  I was able to educate people.  People reached out to me and I was able to help a lot of women because being African American you don’t assume that black people get ovarian cancer.  I was able to be an advocate and come to the health symposiums that the South Carolina Ovarian Cancer Foundation had in Greenville.” 

“It’s a surreal moment being a survivor and a huge blessing because not a lot people make it out saying they’re a survivor.   I see a lot of women and a lot of family members attending the ovarian cancer meetings who have a mom or a sister who died, so it’s a huge blessing I take to heart.”

“I would like people to understand that you can’t do it alone.  It’s ok to have help to get through it.  Be knowledgeable of the cancer you’re diagnosed with.    Be able to understand the doctor’s language, do research on everything that is going on with the surgery.   Ask all kinds of questions, don’t just settle for the first thing you’re told.”  

“I don’t know sometimes if I’m living life on the edge.  I’m cautious when it comes to health stuff but I live on the edge when it comes to experiences, different life experiences and travelling stuff.”

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Read more from the Survivor Series @bit.ly/CSPSurvivorSeries. Photo by Patrick Cox. Interview by Amy Doser. #survivorspark

 

COURTNEY TURNER (39 Y/O)//WIFE TO BRAD//MOTHER TO 6 Y/O NOLA//LIFELONG WRITER//PART TIME BLOGGER//FORMER EDUCATOR//FIGHTER OF COLORECTAL CANCER

INTERVIEW BY AMY DOSER//PHOTO BY PATRICK COX 

“I was diagnosed in October of 2015 with colorectal cancer. The unique part about that to me is that I’ve grown up with Crohn’s Disease which is an autoimmune disease affecting the colon.  I’d lost parts of my colon to Crohn’s Disease, which is why it took a little time to diagnose.  As far as the doctors were concerned I was a bit of a medical anomaly.”

“I was very ill from a young age with other things, but I think cancer is shocking for anybody.  At some point pretty early in the process, the disease metastasized to my lungs which is common with colon cancer…we kinda knew then we needed to take a very aggressive approach.  Where we are is at a stage of running out of options, maybe already run out of options, and we’re trying to find ways to appreciate the time I have right now.  It does feel a bit more urgent as far as applying it to direct parts of my life specifically my husband and my daughter.”

“When I was diagnosed she wasn’t quite 3, she was just over 2. And I will say that for most of her 2nd year, I was very sick up until the diagnosis.  I can reflect back and realize that my daughter has probably only known a sick mommy and sometimes that weighs heavy and sometimes there’s the thought that she will be the most empathetic, compassionate adult that she can be having experienced this at such a young age.”

“We never called it just “sick”.   We explained it was cancer, we explained where it was.  At the end of the day this is my reality, it is my life that I am living.”

“I don’t have a bucket list, nor do I have a lot of weight on sweating the little things that actually did turn out to be little things now that the big picture is.   I can definitely say I am at peace with where I am and how it will go.   I will never be at peace worrying about them.”

“I emailed Kay regarding the park and its purpose because I just envision an opportunity for anyone who would want to come together and want to celebrate Nola and share with Nola and Brad what they knew about me.  I wanted to see if it was possible to have some sort of celebration of life.   I wanted to see if that was an intended purpose of the park because we’ve enjoyed seeing it be constructed.  I have a plaque on the bridge with my name on it.  Nola goes and finds it and thinks she’s a celebrity.   We’ve enjoyed that part of it.”

“It’s ok for life to be hard.  We all just need to react in a way that works for us. Sometimes I was really hard on myself like ‘if I had been positive would that cancer have gotten better?’  A lot of people keep looking for the grass to be greener.  A lot of people keep looking for as my husband says, the stations of the journey, but it’s really about the journey.  The journey is what matters.”

“I met my life dream when I became a wife and a mother. However my story ends no one will ever be able to say she gave up.  I’ve fought to the very last second.   It’s been a long fight and I wouldn’t want anyone around me to think I just gave in.  I just hope to leave little nuggets of me somewhere.  I think everybody’s story is worth hearing because they’re so different.  There’s probably uniqueness and probably similarities to everybody.  I don’t regret any of it, every bit of it was exactly as it should have been as far as timing.”

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Read more from the Survivor Series @bit.ly/CSPSurvivorSeries. Photo by Patrick Cox. Interview by Amy Doser. #survivorspark

 

 

Myleigh McDowell (8 y/o) / / daughter to Jessica & Robert McDowell / / beloved sister to her siblings / / 2nd grader @ Abner Creek Academy / / 2019 CHOP! Cancer Childhood Ambassador Chef / / singer, dancer & future surgeon (or mathematician!) / / lover of Chutes & Ladders, Monopoly & Fruity Pebbles / / currently surviving Wilm’s Tumor (34% survival rate; diagnosed Feb. 2, 2018)
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Myleigh: “My science project was about paper towels. Who was the strongest, and who absorbs the most water. We put them in water and squeezed them out, and put them in little cups to see which one had the least water in it. When they were dry, we put money on them, to see which would break. Viva and Bounty didn’t break, but Publix did, because it still had the most water in the towel! Math is my favorite subject. I love art and math! My dad likes math, too.

"When I grow up, I am going to be a surgeon, a singer or a dancer. I could dance right now! I want to be a surgeon because I just want to look at cool things and help people.

"My favorite thing to do now that I am out of the hospital is to dance. I am learning how to cook! I have a kitchen at home. We play CHOP! [Cancer] at home.

Robert (father): “And who do I let win every time?”

M: “Me.”

R: “But I told you, I am going to have to stop letting you do whatever you want!” [laughs]

M: “I found out I had cancer Feb. 2, 2018. It’s Wilm’s Tumor. It’s on my kidney. We had it taken out. I like my doctor. He’s a surgeon. I have 3 girls and 3 guys as my doctors. I like them! I had never had surgery before that. It wasn’t scary.”

R: “She did chemo for over 10 months, and she did radiation for 11 days straight. She is a warrior. She is looking good. We are just trusting Him -- God is good, and Myleigh is our hero.”

M: “I am not a hero! I am a SHEro.”

R: “She is our strength. I never met a stronger person -- not even talking about a little girl. She is the strongest person I have met in the world, bar none. She is focused. She can make statements that will break anyone.”

M: “My daddy was the saddest one, because he is always there for me. So is my mommy -- ALWAYS there for me! Look -- he is about to cry right now. He would cry because if me and my brothers [6, 9, 11 and 12 y/o] are hurt, he will be sad. He loves us.”

R: “When you pray, what do you pray for?”

M: “God, my brothers and my sisters.”

R: “She is an awesome kid. She did most of her praying for us, most of the time. She said she was fine, and God was going to take care of her. She would pray and it would make us all cry. She prayed for mommy and daddy, and her brothers, and that God would touch us and take care of us. She is always like, dad, I am ok. Don’t cry.”

M: “If you believe, God will make a miracle.”

R: “That’s IT!”
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Read more from the Survivor Series @bit.ly/CSPSurvivorSeries. Photo by Patrick Cox. Interview by Emily Price. #survivorspark

 

Mike Bays (44 y/o) / / full-time single dad to Lance (12 y/o) and Jacob (7 y/o) / / IT recruitier Godshall Professional Recruiting & Staffing / / 2x Clemson University grad (management, ‘97 & HRD, ‘99) / / Clemson Tiger (‘94-’96) & career push-up leader record holder (2,216) / / currently surviving multiple myeloma (diagnosed June 26, ‘07)

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“I was the Tiger for 3 years -- from ‘94 to ‘96. I wouldn’t let anyone else in the suit back then. It was just me. That’s why the push-up record is in tact -- 2,216. I would lose about 10 pounds a game in that suit! Once or twice, I did some IV fluids at halftime to keep going. When I get out there now [in the heat], I have no idea how I ever survived [laughs].

“I have multiple myeloma. It’s in your bone marrow -- there is no cure for it. They’re close to it, from what I understand. I’m in remission right now. When I discovered I had cancer, my youngest son was a year old. It was June 26, ‘07, and I was working on the side helping the entertainment team for the Greenville Drive doing mascot stuff. I had the worst leg pain for the longest time -- I thought it was sciatica. My leg was starting to give way. I had the pain for just under a year, and it just started getting worse and worse. I just didn’t go to the doctor. I just thought I was getting old, I guess. But on that day, I was on top of the dugout throwing out t-shirts, and went to put a hat on a kids head, when my leg just snapped. I was laying on the 3rd base dugout, and I tapped the woman next to me in the stands and said, ‘Excuse me, ma’am, I think I just broke my leg. Can you help me get someone down here?’

“They rushed me an ambulance and got me out of there. Turned out I had a 4” hole in my femur. It was cancer that was eating away at it. I was in the hospital for 9 days. It was multiple myeloma, which is multiple plasma cystomas throughout your body. They told my family and my ex-wife at the time that I had little time to live. They didn’t tell me -- I didn’t know this until after the fact.

“You hit a big depression when you are first diagnosed, but I had a lot of prayers, and a big prayer chain going before the days of Facebook. After that first weekend, the doctor came back and noticed the cancer was in just one area. When I heard that, my attitude changed. I was like, ‘I got this. God is on my side, and I am going to beat this thing.’ And I did. I made it through. I was in remission for quite a long time, and then it reoccurred in 2015.

“At that time, the doctor started talking to me about life expectancy. He said, ‘You have a good 5-10 years, for sure.’ Hearing that is definitely something that wakes you up. I had him repeat it a couple of times. I got very emotional -- and I am a pretty positive guy, dealing with my cancer -- but I got in the car and balled my eyes out. I had two kids at home. The first thing I’m thinking is, ‘They won’t have a dad. I’ve got to do something.’

When you’re faced with your health, and knowing your boys may not have a father -- you’re forced to ask, ‘What is important? Is this? Because I’m not gonna be here in 5-10 years.’ My whole attitude and life has changed. In a sense, I am one of those weird people that’s thankful for my cancer. I am thankful that God chose the right person to let it go through me -- because I have used it as a vehicle to help other people.

“I won’t get TOO personal, but at the time, I filed for divorce. I went to work and told them, ‘I’m going to die. We’ve gotta make as much money as we can, so I can take care of my kids.’ I went and I got a second opinion. I saw this new doctor, and he ran a PET scan. We found a little in my back and a little in my shoulder -- and we attacked it aggressively. I did some chemo to get in remission, and did a full stem cell replacement. I had my hip replaced after that. I was walking on a cane for the longest time. My work was amazing with me, and took good care of me. I was able to hit my chemo appointments, and they worked with my schedule. And I never skipped a beat -- I just kept doing what I had to do. I lived life. I had two kids to raise.

“Now I literally have a whole different immune system. I’m a whole different person -- my whole makeup. They take these stem cells out of your bone marrow; you get shots for like a week straight; and it makes all these cells reproduce and push out of your bones -- your bones actually hurt for a bit, and the cells get in your bloodstream, and then the doctors collect them (I sat there for 7 hours while they did). The next day, they give you these little stem cells, and they know where to go in your body. They start reproducing this whole new system. So I had to get vaccines and booster shots and all that stuff all over again. I can get new allergies. It’s absolutely crazy!

“When I went to get my hip replaced, it was in bad shape -- bone-to-bone. My femur was crushed. I was walking around and working the cane really hard. I went in, and the doctor said, ‘I can get you in the next couple of weeks.’ It was the beginning of the season, but I said, ‘I missed Clemson all last season. We’re going to the National Championship this year, and I’m gonna wait it out.’ He said I was nuts, but we scheduled it for the week after the National Championship. That’s when we won the whole thing. I went to the game, and I took this cane. I had everyone sign it, and then I retired it. But I kinda feel like they did it for me.

“This cane, actually -- Dave Fisher made it for me, who used to dress as a clown for the hockey and the baseball games. He whittled this out of wood. It’s opened the door for me to meet a lot of other cancer survivors. I remember meeting a young boy named Beckett Wyatt -- he actually died of cancer, but I met him at a Clemson game in a box. He happened to see my cane, and he thought it was cool. At the time, I could tell he had cancer, and we were talking about the Tiger, and I told him I used to be the Tiger. So I showed him this cane, turned it around, and I said, ‘What does this say?’ And he said, ‘It says cancer survivor! You have cancer, too?!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah man, do you? We are like brothers then.’ We ended up becoming real good friends. I am good friends with his dad, Roger, today. I talked to him when we knew it was coming to an end. This cane -- and cancer -- has opened up a lot of doors.

“As my kids have gotten older, my oldest son, Lance, has come to a couple chemo appointments with me, so he’s been able to kinda see it. My little guy -- I don’t think he quite gets it yet. He was telling me Deadpool’s super power is that he has cancer! I don’t know if they understand the full depth of it, but in time, they will. They spoke to my friend Beckett, and they know he lost his life. But with a kid -- they gotta maintain positive and normal [states] as much as possible. Their little minds need to focus on themselves -- that’s the way I dealt with it. Both of them have straight A’s, and they are good kids. GOOD kids. Future Tiger mascots. They always wanna do push-ups after we score touchdowns.”

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