A Survivor Dressed in Pink


In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I interviewed breast cancer survivor and DSU alumni, Brenda Holliday, from my hometown. I have known her for the majority of my life. During October, I always think about her and others who have gone, or are currently going, through breast cancer treatments. After calling Mrs. Holliday one afternoon to hear the full story, I painted a picture that I hope honors her recounting of events and other women (and men) who are fighting or recovering from cancer.

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The white walls of the hospital room Brenda waited in with her husband felt much colder than any other time she had been here. She felt stifled even though the room itself was rather large compared to the waiting rooms in Leflore Hospital in Greenwood, Mississippi. Brenda glanced at Al, his face drawn tight with worry, and she felt an echo of his concern. Her throat felt constricted as she sat beside him, her hand squeezing his and needing to feel him there because she didn’t know if the doctor would return with good news. The air was charged with tension and Brenda felt chilled in the room even though it was much better than the August heat waging outside.

It’s going to be okay, he said as he patted Brenda’s hand.

I hope so, she replied.

To think that only yesterday morning she was waking up to take her youngest son, Rob, back to Starkville. She felt that something bad was about to happen to her—a sense of foreboding filling her lungs as she got ready for the day. Brenda had felt a slight pain in her breast that morning, and while she knew it may not be anything serious, she decided to schedule an appointment to see her OB/GYN just to be sure.

The doorknob to their room twitched as the doctor opened the door, clipboard in hand with her biopsy results. Brenda’s heart pounded in her chest as she leaned slightly forward in her chair. Beside her, Al’s hand tightened around hers and he straightened to attention as the doctor closed the door behind him.

The doctor’s eyes were kind but there was twinge of sadness within them, and Brenda’s stomach fell to her toes. Before he even opened his mouth, she knew.

It’s cancer, he said softly.

Immediately, pure, unadulterated fear washed over her entire body as she stared blankly at the doctor who was explaining what they could do. Medical terms and facilities went in one ear and out the other—everything sounded so far away and muffled. Her mouth was dry, and she could feel the tears bubbling at the corners of her eyes. She refused to let them fall.

Am I going to die? While her husband and the doctor talked, her life was flying by like scenes from a movie: Working at Staplcotn, building her career and eventually becoming the supervisor for the accounting department; raising her three sons, watching them grow and graduate and get married; going to church and speaking with friends; and loving and supporting not only Al but her three sons in all their adventures.

In August 2014, Brenda’s entire world shattered right in front of her as she continued to wonder and question whether she would even survive. Am I going to die? She couldn’t possibly die yet. There was so much she still wanted to do, but the terror one simple word invoked in her kept her from thinking, from moving, from talking. Along with the fear came frustration as she thought back to May when she had her last mammogram. The results came back normal—there was no sign whatsoever that a lump or cancer was present. How could the state of her body change so suddenly?

She would never know, but her sons wanted the best for her and pleaded that she come to Houston, TX, for a second opinion. In the end, Brenda decided that driving to Houston with Al to see a doctor at M.D. Anderson Hospital was the right thing to do. No matter how terrified she was of the entire situation, Brenda needed to know for sure what could be done and that she would survive.

Upon arriving at M.D. Anderson and checking in for her appointment, Brenda was taken to radiology where they performed an ultrasound to determine the extent of the cancer. The tests only confirmed her worst fears: not only did she have breast cancer, she had three tumors, and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Doctors told her that she would need surgery to remove the tumors and not only chemotherapy but radiation as the cancer had spread to her skin.

She returned from the ultrasound and sat in the waiting room, sobbing and frightened for her future. Brenda couldn’t believe the results, couldn’t fathom the extent of them. Am I going to die? If the cancer had spread, then wouldn’t that mean it could continue despite the chemotherapy? As these thoughts continued to run rampant through her head, a volunteer nurse approached her. She was bald and dressed in scrubs, and she gave Brenda a gentle, comforting smile.

“You must be a newbie,” she said, that same smile on her face. Her eyes were kind as she patted Brenda’s shoulder.

Brenda could only stare at her, taking in the Australian accent and the way she confidently approached a crying woman who had just received more bad news. At her startled and curious stare, the woman gave a small chuckle and said, ”I’ve been where you are right now. So far, I’ve been cancer free, but I refuse to grow out my hair until my ten years are up.”

“Ten years?” Brenda asked.

“Yes, the doctors won’t say we’re completely cancer free until the ten years are over, since it can come back at any point,” she explained.

She asked Brenda what the doctors had told her and Brenda explained everything that had happened. Brenda choked back her tears, trying to stop crying at least long enough to talk to this kind stranger. The Australian woman nodded in understanding and grasped Brenda’s hand. “Save those tears,” she said. “You’re going to make it. Until they tell you you’re dying, stay optimistic.”

On Labor Day in 2014, Brenda underwent a mastectomy to remove the tumors and prevent the cancer from spreading. Though frightened every day by the thought of the cancer spreading further and tired due to the chemotherapy, Brenda persevered through it all. She continued to work at Staplcotn, surrounded by her co-workers who offered their support and took care of her work when she had to travel to Jackson Oncology for chemotherapy and radiation. Her friends from church would take her to her appointments since Al couldn’t afford to lose time at work to take her, as he was trying to save more money for his upcoming retirement in 2015.

Every Friday in the morning for 12 weeks, Brenda would go to Jackson Oncology and endure the chemotherapy and radiation. After her 12 weeks were up, she would go every other Monday to receive a shot to boost her immune system while still undergoing chemotherapy for eight weeks. However optimistic she’d been, the first time she saw her hair begin to fall out, she cried. Losing her hair was like losing a part of herself, and it also showed her once again that she was sick. Brenda was fighting for her life and the hair was proof that the war going on in her body was a tough one.

Working was difficult after receiving chemotherapy, but Brenda refused to let breast cancer take over her life. She would continue to live and work no matter how tired or how much pain she was in over the loss of her hair. Even the prosthetic she had to wear until she completed six months of radiation was worth it. Everything she has done up until this point was worth the tears, the fear, and the pain. Brenda would survive this.

After completing her chemo and radiation in 2014-2015, she is finally cancer free. Every morning, she wakes up and gets ready for the day. She takes arimedix, a pill that her doctors say she must take for five to 10 years depending on whether she remains cancer free. While living her life, Brenda must face the same fear of wondering if her cancer has returned when she goes for bloodwork every six months. The unknown frightens her now as she never knows whether the nurse will announce that there are cancerous cells within her bloodstream. Ever since first realizing she had breast cancer, Brenda has become much more aware of her body. She pays much more attention to her body’s pains and signals that something might be wrong.

Despite the constant fear, she has her husband, family, friends and co-workers who are there to support her. Throughout it all, Al stayed at her side and took care of her no matter how tired he was from work. Her three sons, Al the III, Jon, and Rob, called the house at least every other day to check up on her condition as they all lived outside of Greenwood, Mississippi. Her friends at church who took her to Jackson for her appointments and her co-workers who handled her workload while she was away, Brenda doesn’t know what she’d do without all the support she’s received and she’s so thankful for all of them.

The Australian woman who talked to her was right. Brenda did make it and she will continue to live. She survived this—she is a survivor, a fighter. Through the pain, the loss of her hair, and feeling tired, Brenda remained strong thanks to her friends and family. She survived thanks to her determination to live and their support.

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Even as I finished typing those last few lines, I cannot get over how strong and brave Mrs. Holliday was throughout it all. I know she is cancer free as of today, but even so, I continue to ask my mom how she is doing during our weekly calls. The amount of courage, determination, and bravery a woman (or man) must go through in order to make it pass the chemo/radiation and the surgeries, it’s unreal. These men and women who are battling for their lives and win the fight deserve the title of ‘fighter,’ ‘strong,’ and ‘survivor.’ It humbles me to hear these stories from survivors like Mrs. Holliday and makes me glad that she was one of the survivors who made it.