The first time Judy Poppell Cook of Havana walked in an American Cancer Society Relay for Life, she was walking for a dear friend who she'd recently lost to breast cancer. She'd been with her friend, Pati Payne, throughout most of her illness, almost up until the end. And when Cook hit the track that first time in a Relay, she had no idea that in just a couple of months, she would be diagnosed with breast cancer herself.
Although the diagnosis came as a shock, Cook said it wasn't really a surprise. She found her first lump when she was just 16 years old while bathing. She didn't tell anyone for a while, and was terrified. When it didn't disappear, Cook realized she'd have to tell her mother, and a visit to the doctor's office led to surgery to remove what turned out to be a cyst.
Cook had eight more cysts removed prior to her cancer diagnosis.
“It had been an ongoing process since then, and it wasn't a question of if, it was more of a question of when,” she said.
There is no one else in her family who's had breast cancer, and Cook said it could be due, in her opinion, to the birth control treatments that were commonly used in the 1960s and '70s.
“They were stronger,” she said, “and my tumors (from her first diagnosis) were estrogen filled.”
That first diagnosis came in July 2002, when Cook discovered a lump during a routine breast self examination. After a subsequent biopsy, she was told in August that same year that she had breast cancer. In September, she underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, followed by nine weeks of chemotherapy. Then she spent four years taking Tamoxifin and Aranidex while she continued to try to live her life.
Part of that return to normalcy was returning to a job she loved, but after battling with both her disease and an unsympathetic boss, Cook was told she had to take an early retirement. She was only a couple of days away from her 30-year retirement mark, and had to seek legal action. But that wasn't her toughest battle – that had been when she had to tell her family.
“My parents are disabled and I didn't want to be a burden to them, so I didn't tell them at first,” she said. “And my daughter, Kimberly, was just before getting engaged, and I didn't want to tell her either. But I finally decided I had to tell her. I said, 'Honey, Mom's got cancer. But it's OK. We're going to fight it.”
Cook saw her daughter married in December that same year, and she now has two granddaughters: Caylee is almost 4 and Ava is 17 months old.
“That's the best medicine I get,” Cook said of her grandchildren. “They're such a joy.”
That medicine has come in handy, because after nearly five years of being cancer-free, Cook was diagnosed again.
In December 2006, Cook had strep throat. She noticed swelling in her glands and lymph nodes, and examined her armpit area, and found a lump in the node area, on the same side where she'd had cancer previously. She had surgery in January 2007, during which 14 lymph nodes were removed. Five of those removed were deemed cancerous.
She began chemotherapy again, followed by seven weeks of radiation. She took Taxol for four months, but the cancer spread to her liver, so they had to discontinue that drug. That was followed with Herceptin every three weeks. She will continue those treatments indefinitely.
In all, Cook said she's had 75-80 treatments.
Cook says her Caylee knows that My-maw has an “ugly sick,” and neither of her granddaughters can remember her not being sick. But she wants to share that experience with them when they're older.
“I'm keeping a journal about myself and my experience with cancer. It's called, 'Tell Me About My My-maw.” I may not see them grow up to become young women and I want them to know who their My-maw really was,” she said, adding that the journal includes pictures and newspaper articles.
The journal also has another purpose. Cook is aware that women are diagnosed every day with breast cancer, and is aware that there is a chance her daughter or granddaughters may face the same diagnosis she has.
“One in three women will develop breast cancer,” she said. “Does that mean my daughter or one of my granddaughters will be the one? My job is not done until they find a cure and make sure they don't have to go through what I've gone through. If they ever have to go through this, (the journal will help them and) they will know that if My-maw can do it, they can too.”
But Cook sees her experience as a ministry that goes beyond what she can share with her family and close friends. She also reaches out to others she meets at the doctor's office and in the treatment room. She spoke of a recent encounter with a woman who'd just been diagnosed. Cook spoke to the woman, placed her arms around her to give her comfort, as only someone who's been there could.
“I told her, 'I know in my heart exactly what you're feeling. I've been there. And no one knows how it feels unless they've been there,'” Cook said, adding that she gave her name and telephone number to the woman and encouraged her to call if she needed to talk.
Cook smiled as she shared that the receptionist at her doctor's office said they'd had difficulty booking the chemotherapy room on Friday afternoons, due to Cook's ministry.
“We have people who want to have their treatments with you,” the receptionist said.
“It was quite an uplift for me (to hear that),” Cook said. “Part of my healing has been to share with others that it's not a death sentence; there is hope. This is what keeps me going. I have a strong faith and a positive attitude. I tell people, 'Don't let anyone tell you that God doesn't answer prayers, because I am a walking miracle.'”
The Relay for Life has also been an integral part of Cook's healing process, as well as another opportunity to educate and minister to others. She has served as team captain each year for the team from her church, Salem United Methodist. Last year, her team raised $5,000. And this year, the team has raised $3,800 so far.
During last year's Relay, Cook was too weak to walk, but she plans to take her survivor lap during this weekend's Relay, and said that doing so each year has given her the courage, hope and strength to keep fighting.
“This may just be a two-day event, but cancer is an ongoing thing. Dig deep into your pockets. It helps so many people and it's so important to work for a cure.”