‘Live Until You Die’

Published 6:03 pm Saturday, October 8, 2016

They held hands all the way back home.  The trip to Hattiesburg to buyMechelle Stockett’s mother a wig made out of real hair — she was tired of the shiny fake ones — had gone well. She’d been fitted and the order had been placed.  After six years in remission, Stockett’s mother, Mary Howell, had relapsed. She’d beat the breast cancer once, but it came back with a vengeance, metastasizing to her bones.

It didn’t stop Mrs. Howell from going on a mission trip to Honduras shortly after being diagnosed or shuffling down to the front of the stadium, sitting down to rest every few steps along the way, in order to see her niece perform in a Jackson ballet.

“We didn’t know she was about to die. She said, ‘Live until you die,’ and she wasn’t about to give up,” Stockett said. “We didn’t even do hospice. I don’t know if Mom and Dad were in denial, or they just lived one day at a time. They didn’t really live like she was going to die.”

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During her mother’s visitation, Stockett received a call that Mrs. Howell’s wig was ready to be picked up.

It was ready just a little too late. She passed away Mother’s Day of 2008 at age 64.

“She was the quintessential mother,” Stockett said. “This year my youngest graduated high school, and I told him that Granny said the thing she was going to miss was seeing (her grandchildren) graduate. He said, ‘She’ll be there, Mama. She’s got the best seat in the stadium.’”

Suspended in Mystery

Stockett was 43 when her mother passed.

She had had a previous mammogram return as irregular, needing further investigation, but it had turned out to be nothing.

So when her check up in 2014 came back irregular again, requiring a sonogram and a biopsy, Stockett said she wasn’t too, too concerned.

She went to her father Glenn’s house the day before receiving the results of her tests and never mentioned it to him — no need to worry him.

“I remember thinking, ‘There’s no sense in sitting here worrying. This is a time of mystery. This is one of those times suspended in time. There’s no way to rush it.’ When you read a novel, the suspense is what makes it enthralling and keeps you attentive, so I was just like, ‘I’m going to live in the beauty of the mystery.’

“I didn’t mention that the reason I couldn’t put those pictures back on the shelf was because my side was killing me because I had a biopsy the day before.”

No need to worry him.

On Sept. 17, 2014, Stockett’s OBGYN called her while she was driving and said she could call her back or pull over now.

“I said, ‘I’ll pull over now,’” she said. “She was real compassionate about it.”

She told Stockett her breast cancer was one of the safest kinds of breast cancer to have in one of the safest places to have it — well, as safe as a cancer could be.

She was already on her way to her regular internist when she got the call.

“I called my husband and said, ‘Come meet me at (the doctor’s) office, I have cancer, and we’re going to ask him questions.’ He of course beelined it over there.”

She chose to consult with the same surgical oncologist that her mother had seen. Dr. Phillip Ley agreed her proposed course of action fit with her family history.

“I did not waste time,” she said. “I asked, ‘Is this totally overreacting? And he said, ‘No. That will be fine.’”

Conduit of Grace 

They went to an Applebee’s after meeting with Dr. Ley to call their family, to let them know her decision: to have a double mastectomy.

Mrs. Howell first noticed a lump in her breast in 1997, Stockett said, but the doctors told her to wait and watch it for a year.

“Who knows what happened in that time,” she said, noting her mother was diagnosed after that year was up. “That’s why when I called my dad and said that I have breast cancer and am having a double mastectomy, he said, ‘Good. Cause the doctor said to wait and watch it (to your mom). You tell the doctor that if he wants to watch it, he can take it out of you and put it in a jar, put it on a mantle and watch it all he wants to.’”

But she didn’t have to say that. Dr. Ley had already agreed with her desired course of action.

Stockett was diagnosed with breast cancer on Wednesday and the Tuesday following she had a double mastectomy.

When she came home, little candles with flowers and Bible verses were arranged throughout her house.

It was just the beginning of the love and compassion she said her church family at Crawford Street United Methodist, where her husband, Cary, pastors, showed her during her recovery and the subsequent period of reconstruction.

“It just made me more aware of little things that people do for one another,” Stockett said. “I had ladies that would drive me back and forth to Jackson and sit with me in doctors’ offices because reconstruction takes awhile. Ladies came and sat with me at home while my son said I was a T-Rex because you have to keep your (upper) arms by your sides. I was overwhelmed with how good people were to me.”

Her sister, who first decided to have a double mastectomy if she were ever diagnosed with breast cancer, came to stay with Stockett after her surgery.

“It’s ugly. There are tubes; you have to drain them. It’s just gross,” Stockett said. “The first time she looked at the drains, she said, ‘I’m fixing to go lay down,’ and I asked, ‘You’re not going to help me drain them?’ She said, ‘If I did, I would faint.’ It was just too much.”

Her sister would later find noncancerous lumps in her breasts, but Stockett said she opted for a lumpectomy after watching Stockett’s experience.

“The one who gave me the courage to do it ended up reneging,” Stockett said, laughing.

Though it may have seemed like too much for her sister, Stockett said the mastectomy made cancer easier in a way.

“There just seemed to be a conduit of grace when I went through it,” she said. “You just survive. You just go through and endure. Someone told me that no matter what, go through every day looking for things to be thankful for, and I just kind of lived in that.

“Not to belittle it, but it wasn’t as jolting or as horrific as I would have anticipated if someone said that I have breast cancer. I didn’t go through chemo. I didn’t go through radiation. I opted for all of my trauma to be right away and over with.”

Her latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction surgery, which occurred Dec. 31, 2014, required stretching her skin to make room for new breasts and physical therapy to strengthen back muscles that had been stretched and rearranged to support her new implants, she said.

“I wanted to get them to as close to the size they were as I could,” she said, explaining that they can only be as big as the muscles can support, so reconstruction involves both physics and art.

“I remember thinking that if I do these mastectomies, I will never ever second guess it,” she said. “I’m not going to look back. I’m not going to ask, ‘What if?’ I’ve only done it twice. I very quickly caught myself and quit. One of those times one of the ladies waiting with me had just had a lumpectomy and she’s healthy and vibrant, so such a different story than my moms. I decided to let that go. This is the choice that I’ve made, and I’m moving forward.”

Future Forward

Life post-cancer has been an adjustment for Stockett no doubt, but she said in some ways, her past has helped her adjust to her present.

“The first time the home health nurses took off the bandaging, I just looked away and wept,” Stockett said. “Seeing my silhouette in the pajamas was different, but I just knew that was kind of part of it. It wasn’t like a tragic accident where I lost an arm. I had a week. I knew it was going to be a thing.

“I have had moments where I’ve had health crises (like a stroke at age 33), and I would get angry at God,” she said. “He can handle it so why not just let him know because he knows it anyway. But this time I never really felt that anger. Life gives us good, bad, everything. You just take it as it comes.”

She noted her mother’s example played a role in her acceptance of her diagnosis, subsequent mastectomies and reconstruction, which she said took her more than half a year “to see it in her tail lights.”

“She was so gracious through the whole thing,” Stocket said of her mother. “By watching her — she was constantly doing — be content sitting on the front porch with Dad and having people stop in and visit with them, for her to just have her time journaling or reading or whatever and being at peace with that, I think it helped me. My mom always said, even before she had cancer, ‘Tough times make you bitter or better. I choose better.’”