Unknown Journey: With life at a slower pace, Stillwell reflects on her cancer year

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Hodgenville woman was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago Saturday

By Jeff D'Alessio

There are reminders everywhere of the last year in Mary Jane Stillwell’s life: medical bills that come in stacks of mail; the circled Aug. 17 on the calendar; and the scar where her left breast was.


Stillwell and her family have lived much of the last year in a blur. The married mother of three received the knee-buckling news that she had breast cancer in an afternoon phone call a year ago Saturday.

Since then, she has lived with fear and hope. Cried and prayed, prayed and cried.

The hair lost through 16 rounds of chemotherapy slowly has returned.

“It’s a lot curlier now,” said Stillwell, a teaching assistant at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Hodgenville. “I feel like a poodle.”

Stillwell, 38, said the challenges offered over the last year never are far away.

“When we went back for her 4-month check-up, it brought back a lot of memories,” said David, her husband of 20 years. “We saw people there (at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville) and we knew what they were going through and what they were feeling.”

She was told by doctors in March there were no signs of cancer in her system. She will take Tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen medication to block possible cancer cells from reappearing, once a day for the next 10 years.

“The next five years we will sit on edge,” she said.

Stillwell has felt better the longer she has been away from the rigors of chemo and treatments, and returned to work last week. The family has been to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where she discovered a lump on her breast in July 2012, and Panama City Beach, Fla., since the positive news.

“We’re just trying to get back to normal where you don’t have to go to the doctor all of the time,” David said.

Long days and nights aside, Mary Jane said this has been a grueling physical and emotional test for her and her family.

“It really feels like all of this happened five years ago,” she said, “and that I went through all of this in somebody else’s body. I know that sounds crazy, but at times it just doesn’t feel real to me.”

On a desk calendar at their home, the date Aug. 17 is circled in pink ink with a sad face. It marks the diagnosis day,  but also how life goes on.

“We’re going to see Phil and Kay Robertson from ‘Duck Dynasty’ at Barren County High School,” Stillwell said. “Aug. 17 is a day that changed our lives, but it didn’t stop us from living.”

She said life has slowed down for her in the last year. She “stays in the day.”

“I don’t feel so overwhelmed,” she said. “Before, I would have to plan out a week at a time. Now I deal with today; I deal with tomorrow, tomorrow.”

She will have surgery for a breast implant in September and meets with an oncologist in November.

“Awareness is the key and early detection,” she said. “I can’t stress that enough and I stress that to everyone. It’s just so important.”

Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at 270-505-1757 or jdalessio@thenewsenterprise.com.