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Joyful Survivors: Four women in Crawford Street Choir have history with breast cancer

On Sundays, they sing. 

Gathered in their blue and green choir robes, the Crawford Street United Methodist Church choir leads the congregation in hymns. 

For four members of the choir, being on the altar is a sign of strength, a symbol they have overcome and lived. Hidden beneath their robes are the scars from their fight breast cancer. The scars from multiple surgeries and months of chemotherapy. But also beneath those robes is a desire to live and a refusal to be defeated, an unflappable strength gained from facing the greatest test of their lives and coming out stronger and with a deeper faith and appreciation for life.

Anita Lofton, Elizabeth Thornton, Susan Johnston and Lucy Spangler each waged a war against breast cancer and survived to share their stories of strength.

Their stories may all be different, but for each of the four of them there is strength in the community they find in the choir and the ability to help each other through their fights.

‘I am not a very patient person’

Lofton, 66, refused to let even breast cancer slow her down.

When she was diagnosed in 1996, she had better things to do than let cancer derail her life. Her daughter was getting married in 28 days and Lofton was determined to be there, looking “as normal as possible.”

“I am not a very patient person,” Lofton said. “When I was in my early 20s, I found out I had fibrositis disease. I figured the next step would be cancer and I am the kind of person that something like that I might be expecting does not surprise me. I am a very positive person and my doctor said ‘We can watch it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to watch anything. I want to get it out now, start treatment and get over it. I have things to do.’”

A week after the tumor was found, Lofton was back for a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery after convincing the hospital board she wanted to have both breasts removed.

“I went to see him on Thursday and I said ‘Ok, I want to have a mastectomy and if I can I’d like to have a double mastectomy,’” Lofton said. “I had my father and a brother die from cancer. Cancer is on my father’s side of the family. That next Monday, April 1, I had a double mastectomy plus reconstruction surgery done at the same time.”

After the surgery, Lofton underwent eight treatments of chemotherapy due to the history of cancer in her family. Not even that could slow her down. Within three months of her surgery, she was back to race walking and to this day would not change a thing about how she decided to attack the disease.

“I would do it all over again the same way,” she said. “My doctor was a real good friend — he grew up with my husband — and he just laid everything on the line and never said don’t you want to wait. I still would still do it all the same way.”

‘The tissue in my breast was changing’

Thornton, 59, can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The day when she can return to being fully herself, singing in the choir, helping around the house and living life to the fullest is drawing near.

“The choir, we are pretty tight and I miss them a lot,” Thornton said. “Our Wednesday choir rehearsals are a great time to laugh and joke and kid and also of course sing. It is a wonderful warm group of people. Church is very important to me. The choir, singing, I love singing with my choir…I have no voice, I cannot sing at all.”

On Friday, Oct. 13, Thornton and her husband Phil shut down Jackson Oncology. Going in for what Thornton refers to her as “our last treatment” the couple wanted to do something special for all the nurses who had been there for her during every treatment.

“We actually closed the place down,” Thornton said. “When we were coming in, Phil and I wanted to do something for the nursing staff. We went up to a bakery and bought four-dozen cookies and took them to the staff.”

Phil was her strength and her rock throughout the process and cared for her on the days she couldn’t even move due to treatment.

“There is no way to describe it,” she said. “Literally during Adriamycin (a chemotherapy drug), he held me up when I had to walk. He’s done everything. He cooks, he shops, he does the yard, he cleans the house, stuff that I can’t do … It has been us every step of the way.”

Thornton’s battle started in May. Self-examinations weren’t a part of her normal routine, but she had noticed a change in her right breast and decided to get it checked.

“The tissue in my breast was changing. It wasn’t a mass. It was different. I really had no idea it was breast cancer,” Thornton said. “I almost feel like it was divine intervention, because the mass I never would have found. There was one in there, but that wasn’t what I felt. It was almost like the Lord was telling me, ‘you need a mammogram. It is time.’”

Breast cancer was never on her radar. She has no family history of the disease and thought she was in the clear as far as getting cancer after smoking for years, but being free of lung cancer.

“I quit smoking 26 years ago,” she said. “Lung cancer was the thing I always feared and I got all these chest x-rays and they were all clear. So I thought I am not going to get cancer because I didn’t get the one I thought I’d get. That is another reason this came out of nowhere and hit me like a ton of bricks. That was the one I feared. That was my total fear. This one never entered my mind.”

May 1, breast cancer officially entered her mind for good though. The doctors haven’t been able to confirm that the change she felt was cancer, although chemotherapy has gotten rid of it, but the mammogram she asked for after feeling the change did lead to the discovery of a lump.

“Disbelief and just fear because I had watched my brother die from cancer and it was not a pretty process,” Thornton said of hearing she had breast cancer for the first time. “I didn’t know anything about breast cancer at that time. I didn’t know the estrogen/progesterone. I didn’t know the other types that were out there that I could have gotten and didn’t. It felt like a death sentence your first time you hear it.”

June 8, she had the treatment port put in and June 18 she officially began treatment. Her doctors chose to have her go through chemo first and then schedule a mastectomy for a later date.

Her first drug was Adriamycin known as “the red devil” or as her nurse at Jackson Oncology called it “the blood of Jesus.” Every two weeks for six weeks, Adriamycin ravaged her body. Then she switched to weekly treatments of Taxol.

“That basically is the hardest part of the journey because of the time and with the Adriamycin, the first week I would feel horrible and then the second week I spent dreading because I had to do it again,” Thornton said. “It was like there was never a break in there. When Taxol started, it was weekly so there was never a break there either. It was long hard journey, but we made it through it.”

Thursday, Oct. 12, the day before her final chemo treatment she got the good news. The tumor could not be found. Her journey is not over though as a mastectomy of her right breast is scheduled for Nov. 8.

“That made all that, Ok now I know why I did all this,” Thornton said of hearing the tumor was gone. “The purpose is there, the purpose is clear and it worked. It made it worth it. It made it worth all the pain and not sleeping.”

‘I went for a checkup and I had five lumps’

Johnston, 67, was ahead of the curve.

Before testing for the BRACA gene was discovered and preemptive mastectomies became a common practice, Johnston, at the advice of her doctors, decided to have the surgery done.

Johnston’s mom and all nine of her aunts had battled cancer including eight who were diagnosed with breast caner.

At 41 years old, and with two young children at home a breast cancer scare of her own was enough to convince her to take preemptive action against the disease.    

“I went for a checkup and I had five lumps that they could feel,” Johnston said. “At that point in time, I had two aunts who had died of breast cancer. One was only 10 years older than I was. I was scheduled to have biopsies, they were going to do five biopsies, and I went in to have the surgery and my doctor came in with the surgeon and they said, ‘We don’t think this is the best thing. We think you should consider prophylactic mastectomies.’ That means preventative mastectomies.”

The decision to follow their advice only took a day. The risk was too real and her kids were too young to allow the chance of one day those lumps being cancer to rule her life.

“My kids were little, babies, and I had seen my youngest aunt die and she had a one year old when she died,” Lofton said. “They did bilateral mastectomies. They said there was one place they felt was precancerous that if I hadn’t gone ahead and had them removed, that I might have had some problems.”

Twenty-five years later the choice has paid dividends as she has avoided the disease that impacted so much of her family and she has been able to watch her two daughters grow-up.

“I never would have thought about it,” Johnston said. “I thought I was in for biopsy after biopsy and it is a scary thing. I didn’t want to do it year after year. Like the others, with young children you want to focus on your kids and see them grow up, play and have a mom. I knew as an older mom, I was already at a disadvantage.”

‘I am more appreciative of life’

Spangler, 45, thought she was going to die.

With a new baby and a toddler at home, Spangler immediately thought her two daughters were going to have to grow up without a mother.

“It was very scary because I wasn’t going to watch my children grow up,” Spangler said of her diagnosis. “It really scared me. It was traumatic. It was life changing. I was like, someone else is going to raise my children. I wanted to be there.”

During a routine self-examination on Oct. 23, 2006, Spangler found a lump in her right breast.

“I called the nurse and said I found a lump in my breast,” Spangler said. “She said, ‘which side is it in?’ I said ‘it is in my right.’ She said, ‘most breast cancers are in your left.’ She said, ‘does it hurt?’ I said, ‘yes it does hurt.’ Well, most breast cancer doesn’t hurt. Then she asked, ‘do you have a history?’ My dad’s mom was brutally cut up back in the ’50s with breast cancer. ‘Well, it is usually on your mom’s side. The soonest we can get you in is Nov. 23.’”

A few days later, as the pain increased she called back and scheduled a mammogram for the next week. The original date for the test continued to hold significance, as it became the day her bilateral mastectomy was performed.

“They didn’t want to do that because it is a lot of surgery, but that is what I wanted. I wanted to have all doubt removed,” Spangler said. “I didn’t want to worry with having another surgery. When I got diagnosed, women came out of the woods and gave me all this advice. The most important advice was I wish I had done both.”

The surgery was followed by eight months of chemotherapy that left her in bed for days at a time following each treatment.

“I couldn’t spend a lot of time with them (her daughters),” she said. “I couldn’t walk really fast. There were times that when it was time for them to go to bed during the two days I was in the bed, we would watch cartoons. They would get in the bed with me, I would look at their little faces and we would watch cartoons. It was a nice memory because when you have chemo there aren’t many nice memories.”

The fear that had gripped her when she heard the diagnosis finally subsided the following July when her reconstruction surgery was completed.

“I realized I was going to live and I said ‘Thank God I get to see them live.’ I get to watch them dance and be in band and get braces,” Spangler said. “After I got my implants in, when it was all over, I let myself rejoice. That was July of 2007.

“I am more appreciative of life. When my daughter got her braces, I broke down and cried. Not many moms do that. I was there. I got to see it.”

Two weeks ago, 10 years after her fight with breast cancer was completed, Spangler found out why she had contracted the disease. A test showed she is positive for the BRACA gene mutation. 

“That was like finding out you have cancer again,” Spangler said. “When you have daughters and you have cancer, their chance of having cancer goes up about 75 percent, but when you find out you have the gene, 90 percent. Now my daughters have a 90 percent chance of getting breast cancer so we are going to test them.”

Her daughters are 15 and 11 and the plan is to test the oldest now and then make a decision based on the results.

“When they first told me I had the gene, I felt guilty because I had given it to them,” Spangler said. “Now, I am looking at in the perspective that I can help her. What I want to do, whether it happens or not, is they are gone. Her breasts are gone immediately. That is what I want.”