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There was unfailing support from all around Mary Jane Stillwell’s life. At home, in her church, on Facebook, at her school and even in the grocery store when strangers recognized her face and offered words of encouragement.
Still, having breast cancer can be a lonely walk to take when thoughts of what the future could hold pound in your head like a really bad headache. Even when her days were filled with laughter and hugs, and sometimes tears, there was the gentle reminder that the 38-year-old married mother of three had cancer.
That has been the Stillwells’ life since the afternoon of Aug. 17 when a voice on the other end of the phone confirmed her greatest fear: She had cancer.
That was then, and this is now. Stillwell, after 16 rounds of chemotherapy at James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville and a mastectomy, is cancer free.
Those two words are knee-buckling to cancer patients and their families, if heard at all.
“They are the best words,” Stillwell said. “We had prayed so much. We prayed before we went into surgery and put everything in the Lord’s hands. But hearing those two words is hard to describe.”
When Stillwell and her husband, David, told their three children the news, an anxious time turned joyful with smiles and tears emerging on faces all around the room.
Stillwell underwent surgery on Feb. 28 at University Hospital in Louisville. A week later, the results of a nuclear dye test to identify if there was cancer in any of Stillwell’s lymph nodes were ready to be read: There was no sign of cancer according to the pathology report, she said.
This was a seven-month journey that has changed the family’s lives forever.
“It’s like we have been in a fog,” she said. “Even though things happened quickly, it doesn’t seem like it has been seven months.”
Life has zipped by with countless trips to Louisville for treatments and the hours that have turned to days, lost in thought.
“Because there is so much to remember to do and all the doctor visits, you were always doing something,” David Stillwell said. “You were always on the go, so it went by fast.”
Even days after hearing there were no signs of cancer, the Hodgenville couple has the constant reminder of what they have just gone through.
“We were talking over the weekend and she said she felt like she lost part of her life because of the chemo,” David said. “In return, she got her life back from the chemo.”
She will take Tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen pill to block possible cancer cells from reappearing, once a day for the next 10 years. She will visit an oncologist every four months and then next year every sixth months. Should there no be no cancer issues, her visits will become annual.
Stillwell knows early detection is the key to beating breast cancer. “That means everything,” she said. “If my story does anything, I hope it is that women check themselves early. I have had women come up and tell me that they have changed what they do because of hearing about me. That is just great.”
The future for Stillwell and her family includes many things, like family time and possibly a spring break trip to New Orleans. Maybe the beach this summer.
“On the day of the surgery, I was more nervous, I think, because it seemed to take a little longer than expected,” David said. “And then hearing she was good, that was extra wonderful. It was just a big relief to hear those words.”
Jeff D'Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Jane Stillwell is a 38-year-old 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 is now a breast cancer survivor.
News Editor Jeff D'Alessio followed Stillwell's journey for this occasional series as she battled cancer.