Stronger than cancer

Lauren Williams Staff Writer

November 1, 2013

Final in series

(Editor’s note: See Breast Cancer Awareness Support Page A9)

Between celebrating her daughter’s marriage in May and preparing to start her 28th year as a teacher at Harrells Christian Academy, Brenda Saunders was busier than ever during 2012. However, a simple self-exam leading to an eventual breast cancer diagnosis that same year slowed her life down considerably. But Saunders is a survivor, and now with the cancer gone and treatments behind her, she focuses on the bright spots in her cancer journey, namely her faith, family, and friends who strengthened her and kept her life joy-filled.

Sitting at a table in HCA’s Learning Center, Saunders recalled how her breast cancer journey started back in 2012.

“I guess I had time to concentrate on myself again,” she said after describing the typical hustle and bustle surrounding a daughter’s wedding.

Aware that it had been about a year and a half since her last mammogram, the 59-year-old Saunders was diligent about performing self-exams. “Mammograms are very important but they’re only once a year. What if something happens in between?”

It was during a self-exam on Sunday night, July 22, 2012 that she discovered a lump.

“I’m guessing it had been there a while. I knew it was something to be concerned about, so I went to the doctor the next morning,” she said. “A mammogram and ultrasound were immediately scheduled, and on Friday, I received the call saying, ‘You need to see a surgeon.’”

Despite the news that more tests needed to be done, Saunders shared that she was not worried.

“I was not too concerned because I had been through a similar situation in 2000 which resulted in a needle biopsy and an aspiration, but nothing showed up as cancer,” she remembered.

In early August, Saunders traveled to Tolnitch Surgical Associates in Raleigh for a core biopsy.

“On August 7, I received the diagnosis no one wants to hear,” she said, noting that doctors told her that her 2 centimeter tumor was invasive ductal carcinoma and was HER 2 positive. She would later learn from her radiologist that her cancer was stage 2.

“I remember sending my husband a text with just these two words, ‘It’s cancer,’” she recalled.

“Things started to move quickly at that point. A lot of decisions had to be made,” Saunders continued. “We decided it was time to tell our three children. I drove to Virgina to tell our daughter and we called our sons. They were very concerned but not distraught. We found strength in one another.”

After letting the rest of her family and some friends know about the diagnosis, Saunders went to HCA just as a new school year was about to begin to tell the school’s new headmaster, Marcus Skipper, what she was facing.

“He was very understanding and showed genuine concern,” she recalled, still grateful. “He shared with me that his wife had been going through breast cancer herself.”

Saunders underwent surgery to have the tumor and five lymph nodes removed on August 24, 2012 and was scheduled to begin seeing a medical oncologist come mid-September.

“I knew I would need some time off, but I never anticipated that I would be out of school for 18 weeks,” she remarked as she listed off her treatments which included six chemotherapy infusions, six Neulasta shots, and 17 Herceptin infusions, each every 21 days, plus 33 radiation treatments which she started this past spring and finished just this past September.

Saunders had nothing but praise for the medical staff who were with her through her cancer journey.

“I cannot say enough about the oncology team as Johnston Medical Associates in Clayton. The doctors and nurses there are among the best in the state,” she said, adding that “I decided to take the radiation treatments in Clinton at Sampson Radiation Oncology. The staff there was wonderful too.”

“I’m now finished with all treatments except for a tablet that I will take once a day for five years,” she shared, happily.

With the worst now behind her, Saunders reflected on the things and people that were key to her survival.

“It wasn’t all pretty and I had some low times but I have received strength from my journey in many different ways. My faith, family, and friends played such an important role in my survival,” she explained, thanking all those who brought humor, happiness, and hope into her life during a difficult time like her mom who made Cornmeal Dumpling Soup, neighbors who prepared meals, and “very dear cousins” who gave her a plaque that said what quickly became her motto — “I am stronger than cancer.”

Calling him her “rock,” Saunders also especially thanked her husband of 37 years, Danny. “He took me to all of my chemo treatments and cared for day in and day out.”

“You know, some women get very upset when they lose their hair. That part didn’t bother me though because of my husband. He’s bald,” she said with a smile. “I just bought lots of hats and scarves.”

Prayers were also greatly appreciated, Saunders added, stressing the difference she knows that prayers made in this chapter of her life.

“I can honestly say that I was never afraid,” she shared, mentioning a inspiring quote by Jonathan Edwards in which she found comfort — “God will turn even the bad things around for your good in the end.” “I had so many people praying for me. The staff and students at HCA prayed for me every day. My children, family, Union Grove Baptist church family, and friends prayed. They all prayed me through. I felt such peace and courage because I knew they were praying.”

“I received cards, banners, prayer shawls, gifts, money, and food…other survivors shared their wigs, hats, scarves, and most importantly, their wisdom,” she continued, trying to remember the many acts of kindness she experienced. “When I felt like it, Danny and I would go out to eat. Sometimes our meals would be paid for by friends at the restaurant or by the restaurant owner.”

“I let other people bless me,” she explained. “I have received many blessings through this cancer journey, and I hope that I can be a blessing to someone else,” adding that to her, “there’s a reason for it. It makes you a better person, a stronger person.”

Now back in the classroom teaching, Saunders was eager to offer her four B’s of advice to women: Be quick to do self-exams, be sure to get annual screenings, be courageous and full of hope, and be still and watch God move.

“Keep a joyful attitude,” she added. “That’s key. Even the doctors told me that was over half the battle right there.”

Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at