Breast cancer survivors inspire, educate


By Shanderia K. Posey


Rebecca Foust (left) and Vernessa Cheatham are breast cancer “survivor sisters” and co-workers.
Rebecca Foust (left) and Vernessa Cheatham are breast cancer “survivor sisters” and co-workers.

There are numerous women and even some men in the Jackson metro area who should be honored for their courageous battle with breast cancer. All of their different stories offer details to educate and inspire the masses. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate and kills 44,000 women every year but there are 1.3 million breast cancer survivors. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and one in 37 will die from it. Three area women recently shared their stories of diagnosis and survival.

Katrina B. Myricks, 53, of Madison, was sitting in the lobby of her doctor’s office grading papers after having her routine mammogram in January 2013. A breast cancer diagnosis was the furthest thing from her mind. Then the Holmes Community College professor was called back in for another test. “They told me I had breast cancer. I said, ‘Say that again.’ I actually went to my knees and started crying … I was not expecting it.”

With no history of breast cancer in her family and having recently lost two friends to breast cancer, Myricks said the news “took me off my feet.” The old saying, “It happens in three’s” overwhelmed her. She didn’t tell her family – husband and daughter – for nearly a week as she tried to digest the news herself. The lump found in her breast turned out to be triple negative breast cancer. This type of breast cancer primarily affects African-American women and if not treated can be one of the most progressive forms of breast cancer.

Myricks selected a surgeon to remove the lump. She also had eight rounds of chemotherapy, injection shots and more than 30 rounds of radiation. While undergoing treatment, she worked when she could. The love and support of friends and family was crucial, and she did her best to keep her spirit high. For example, she lost all of her hair after her second treatment of chemo. “It really didn’t bother me. (I thought) Oh, Lord, I hope I have a cute head!” And she adopted a “no tears allowed” rule for the few loved ones who came to visit her at home. Visits were limited to protect her health. Then her daughter told her one day, “‘But Mom, God told me to tell you you’re going to be OK.’ I never went back to that pity moment,” Myricks said.

Today she is in a wonderful place and huge advocate for breast cancer awareness. Instead of walking at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk last weekend in Jackson, she worked at the walk. Through her sorority – Madison County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta – at least 100 wigs have been donated to the Diva Den of the American Cancer Society. She’s also gained a lot of “survivor sisters” over the years, too. Her advice to others facing a breast cancer diagnosis is to keep your circle small until you’re ready and you understand your diagnosis, listen to your physician, don’t go to the Internet and put your faith in whoever and whatever you believe in. Breast cancer runs in Vernessa Cheatham’s family, so getting her annual mammogram in November is an essential part of her life. In 2012, her exam did not detect anything unusual. However, the next spring the now 55-year-old spunky grandmother who enjoys time with her grandkids and riding her motorcycle, felt soreness under her arm after a ride. Then, she felt a tiny lump. She decided to see her physician and was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer Her2 positive. She went on to have a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction surgery and weekly chemo infusions of Herceptin and six doses of Taxotere.

As a Christian, Cheatham believes in the power of prayer and thanks her sons, Kenyata (his wife Menika), Demondric and Shaq Owens, family, friends and coworkers for their support. She is especially thankful for her spiritual sisters, Brenda Smith and Kathey Martin; Pastors Boyd Thompson and Jerry Collier; and Deacon and Sister Jones; and one family doctor, Rhonda Funchess. She fought like a champ and today is living, loving and laughing. Cheatham works at the Mississippi Department of Transportation. For more than five years, she had no idea her co-worker, Rebecca “Becky” Foust, 56, was fighting the same disease. Today, they are “survivor sisters” who recently participated in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Jackson. They both have a mission to raise money for more cancer research and patient services. “No woman should be without an annual mammogram. Breast Cancer is 99 percent detectable in the first stages so ladies please do your monthly self-check,” is their shared sentiment. Cheatham is alive today because she found a pea-sized lump herself and stresses self examination. “If you feel a lump in your breast, please do not hesitate to contact your doctor. I almost didn’t. I don’t know what the outcome would have been if I had waited seven more months till the next scheduled mammogram,” Cheatham said.

Her advice to others diagnosed with breast cancer is, “Don’t be discouraged and do surround yourself with positive people. Stay strong in the Lord and trust the skilled doctors who have been trained to treat your condition. No question is a dumb question,” Cheatham said.

Foust had her first mammogram 15 years ago, at age 41 when a walnut-sized tumor was detected. The biopsies revealed she had stage III breast cancer. She had already lost her grandmother, Aunt Velma and close friends, Ruth and Emily, to the disease. All she could think about was being there for her children. She prayed nightly to live to see them finish high school. One of the most memorable moments of her journey happened following her mastectomy surgery when a nurse removed her bandages and said, “What a beautiful scar!” At the time, Foust didn’t understand what the nurse meant, but now she knows the nurse meant that with the combination of removing the cancerous breast tissue and chemotherapy, Foust had a chance to survive. And that she did, as well as seeing her daughter graduate from high school. But in February of this year, the cancer returned.

She is now facing metastatic breast cancer, also known as MBC or METS, stage lV or advanced breast cancer. Foust said, “That old bully cancer has set up shop in my lung, sternum, shoulder, rib and lymph nodes.” Though she had always said she would never do chemotherapy again, she now says, “Never say never because if you are given a chance to live longer you will do it again.” She was told by her physician that this time around her cancer was not curable and she would live the rest of her life receiving maintenance treatments that may keep the tumors from progressing. Miraculously, 80 percent of her tumors are gone after her chemotherapy. Although she still has 20 percent in her bones, she remains hopeful. She says she feels so blessed to know many people and local churches have added her to their prayer lists and at this point she relies on her faith of knowing that “everything is going to be alright.”

“I am still a survivor, but I may be on treatment the rest of my life but am blessed by my new sisterhood of survivors and helping with cancer awareness in supporting both American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen. They not only provide patient services, education but also research. So, one day we will have a cure,” she said. “I plan on being here for a while.” Her advice to others is to always get the side of your chest examined even after the breast tissue is removed.

Vernessa Cheatham still enjoys riding her motorcycle.
Vernessa Cheatham still enjoys riding her motorcycle.

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