“I must have gone through an entire box of tissues,” recalls Marva Mathis of a devastating day back in May 2010 when she learned she had breast cancer. She’d gone to the doctor for an examination after discovering a lump on her breast. “I was in total shock,” she says. “And I suddenly felt like my time was limited.”
Save for that first day, Marva spent the several months that would follow focused on staying positive and winning her battle against cancer.
She immediately decided that she would not wallow in the sadness of her situation. Instead, she started taking up new hobbies that would occupy her time – and her mind. She bought a sewing machine and took sewing lessons, resumed piano lessons after having stopped for some time, and indulged her love of reading. While Marva was beginning to feel better about the news she’d received, she wasn’t sure how others would feel.
“At first, I thought I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she remembers. “I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me. But, my brother told me not to keep it to myself. He said I would need support, thoughts and prayers.” And, he was right. Once Marva opened up about her situation, she received an overwhelming outpour of support from family, friends and her neighbors.
The first step in Marva’s recovery was deciding if she wanted a lumpectomy (surgery that would only remove the tumor found in her breast) or a mastectomy (surgery that would remove her breast altogether). Ultimately, Marva decided on a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts) for fear that the cancer would one day come back. But, in true Marva fashion, she stayed positive about her surgery – and even had a good-bye party for her breasts. “It was a lot of fun,” she laughs. “I figured it’s going to happen, so I might as well be happy.”
Marva’s surgery was completed successfully at St. Mark’s Hospital in June 2010. All of her family came out to support her, including one of her daughters who works there as a nurse. For the next four months, Marva would go in every two weeks to receive her chemotherapy treatments. She took a special pink blanket given to her by her niece to each and every treatment.
Much of her life outside of cancer treatment remained the same. She was always a healthy and active person, so she continued to watch her food intake carefully and exercise regularly. She contributes that as one of the reasons she never really felt sick during chemotherapy. She followed the rules the doctors gave her and maintained a positive mental attitude. “Everything [the doctors] said might help, I did,” says Marva.
Her family and neighbors were there for her every step of the way. Neighbors and their children checked in on her nearly every day. “My own children were very protective,” Marva says. “In a lot of ways, I think it was harder for them than me. I was the caretaker. I think staying positive and having the good-bye parties was very therapeutic for them.” Marva’s family also had a good-bye party when she lost her hair.
Of course, it wasn’t always easy. There were days when she felt down. She shared those moments only with her husband at home. Then, she would bake bread and deliver it to the neighbors. “Helping others made it harder for me to feel sorry for myself,” said Marva. “There is just no advantage to that.”
After four months of chemotherapy, the doctors told Marva they had removed as much of the tumor as possible. Upon evaluation, they determined she wouldn’t need radiation therapy. She has been cancer-free for more than a year and a half.
As a cancer survivor, Marva suggests to those recently diagnosed, “Do not try to keep it to yourself. Let others care about you, look for things to keep you busy, and find a good support system. It isn’t a death sentence. You can better your chances for survival. Do what the doctors say and then look outside.” And to all women, Marva says, “Get your yearly mammogram. Forget the excuses. I tell all my friends to go get checked.”
Marva is hopeful that sharing her experience will help others. “I hope we keep talking about it, so it isn’t so scary and so we’re doing everything we can to prevent it or detect it early. It is a battle we can win.”