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The path Mary Jane Stillwell has walked started with soreness and a lump in her breast, discovered late in July on a family vacation to Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
A few weeks later, on the afternoon of Aug. 17, she received the numbing news from a voice on the phone that the lump was cancerous.
The end, as she knows it, could be Thursday when she has her breast removed at University Hospital in Louisville. Stillwell already has endured numerous rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the lump and rid her body of cancer.
“I am just ready for it all to be over with and to move forward,” said the Hodgenville mother of three. “In some ways it has been a blur the last several months.”
There have been regular Thursday trips to the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville, lonely nights when the darkness left her frozen in emotional and frightening thoughts. There also have been days filled with hugs, tears and laughter.
And there have been shopping trips for scarfs, a wig and most recently, as she calls it, “boobie shopping” for a gel implant.
The noon surgery is expected to last about an hour, followed by about an hour of work for the implant.
As part of the surgery, a nuclear dye test will be administered to identify if there is cancer in any of Stillwell’s lymph nodes. The magic number the Stillwells are looking for next week is four or less.
Anything less than that number won’t require radiation treatments. Above it, and the constant battle against cancer will continue.
“Hopefully everything is good and it’s gone,” said David Stillwell, her husband of 19 years. “There’s always that nervousness until you are for sure it is gone.”
Before she started chemotherapy, tests were run to see if she could handle it. Stillwell said no cancer showed up then in her lymph nodes, so the family is confident she will be fine with this test. It will take up to 14 days to receive results.
Life has changed in the last seven months. Stillwell said living with cancer has become “normalcy” for her and her family.
She only recently returned to work as a teaching assistant at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School because there were so many students absent with the flu she couldn’t risk getting sick.
Getting back to work and with many of her strongest supporters — students and staff — has been a nice remedy for her.
“The journey that I have been on has been mentally and physically draining at times,” she said. “The Lord is with you as you go in valleys and he is with you on the mountaintop.”
Since her final chemotherapy treatment Jan. 31, there has, in some ways, been a void in her life.
“It was our Thursday thing to do. I didn’t comprehend how much chemo can beat your body up until I’ve had this break from it,” she said. “That last chemo was the grandest thing.”
Should no radiation be required, Stillwell will return in six months to be examined and tested again. If she is cancer free, she will have visits once a year for the next five years.
A week from now, the Stillwells will be playing the waiting and wondering game again.
“I’m human, of course it is in the back of my mind if it is all gone,” she said. “It’s a mind thing. What if they didn’t get all the cancer or did not get it in time?
“From Sept. 13 on, it (the tumor) gradually kept shrinking and has responded well,” she said.
She expects to be off work for about a week.
“I plan to come back to work and see my little friends here and my big friends here, too,” she said. “They are a big support for me and that means everything.”
Jeff D'Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Jane Stillwell is a married mother of three who loves to spend time with her family. She works as an instructional assistant at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Hodgenville.
She also has breast cancer.
News Editor Jeff D'Alessio is following Stillwell's journey in this ongoing series as she faces cancer head-on.
Less than one month after her diagnosis, the now 38-year-old started chemotherapy at James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville.