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(Editor’s note: For our final story in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we decided to take a different angle. We focused two couples and how the husbands dealt with the awareness that their wives had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Denise and James Lewis and Denise and DeLeon Wilks share their journeys to help others that may walk the same road they have traveled.)
James and Denise Lewis
This week will mark the 13th anniversary of when Denise and James Lewis were told the devastating news that she had breast cancer. Denise was only 31 years old and had two daughters, the youngest only 2, when they got the news.
“I remember that day clearly,” stated James. “I was on the football field practicing when I saw Denise and her friend that had gone to her doctor’s appointment with her drive up to the field. I knew as soon as she stepped out of the car the news was not good.
James said Denise had talked him out of going with her to her doctor’s appointment, reassuring him that everything was going to be fine.
Denise explained that she had been experiencing some breast pain and actually discovered a lump in the shower a couple weeks later.
“The pain I felt was like when you are nursing and the milk fills the breast. I had not been conducting self exams like I should, but at 31 I just did not think I was old enough to develop breast cancer,” expressed Denise.
When James finally thought about the news that Denise had breast cancer and the urgency of the situation, all types of thoughts began running through his head.
“I just began to think, ‘What would happen if I lost her? I can’t be both mother and father to our two little girls.’ I just didn’t know how I would make it. It was scary. Where do I turn? What am I going to do? Many thoughts ran through my mind, and it was really a struggle for me,” asserted James. “I started praying to God to spare her and heal her.”
Denise shared that following the biopsy,the surgeon said that everything looked good.
“The biopsy was done like on Wednesday and then the next Monday was Nov. 1 and that is when I went back for the results. On Wednesday, Nov. 3, because the cancer was such an aggressive type, I underwent a mastectomy. I did not even have time for reconstructive surgery before I had to start chemo,” explained Denise. “When I heard the words cancer from the doctor that first time, my whole life went through my mind and I started thinking about James and the girls. What will they do if something happens to me?” acknowledged Denise.
“We had to make a quick decision regarding the surgery because the doctors told us that I would not see Christmas without it.”
For Denise, the diagnosis was extremely disturbing. Her mother had died of brain cancer at the age of 41, and now at 31 she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. After testing, Denise was not to have any family history of cancer other than her mother’s nor did she have any of the genetic factors that would indicate she was likely to develop cancer. This was a big concern for her because she had two daughters.
The Lewises underwent four months of chemotherapy, once every three weeks, and five and-a-half weeks of radiation, five days per week. Denise had such bad reactions to the chemo that she was sedated at times so she could rest.
“There were times when Denise was so out of it. She doesn’t even remember much about it now. Friends and family were so helpful in keeping phone and visitor logs when she was in the hospital. Joyce Porter was such a blessing. She would substitute for me at school and do it for free to help us out. I don’t know what we would have done without so much help from the schools, (Denise teaches at Salemburg Elementary, James, Lakewood), our church, family, friends and the community. After a few days of seeing how I did dressing the girls, some of the ladies decided daddy needed some help and they did,” James shared, smiling at the memory.
He admitted to Denise’s surprise that there were times when he went away to himself and cried because he was scared and overwhelmed. He added that because of all the support they received that they were able to survive the ordeal.
“I learned to check diapers during this time. I know now you don’t stick your finger in them to see if they are soiled,” he joked.
James, Denise stressed, was her rock and was there for her all the time.
“After the diagnosis and the surgeries, (Denise had her remaining breast removed about six years ago), treatment and right through today, James has been here for me. Thanks to his strength and the support of everyone, we have been able to win this journey. I still think about having cancer every day. Even after my oncology checkups, and they come back clear, it is still in the back of my mind. God has worked miracles for us and we are so grateful for all that has been done for us,” asserted Denise.
James agreed. “This has been a struggle physically, spiritually, emotionally and financially and it something we are still dealing with 13 years later. But we put things in God’s hands and have helped each other day by day. We are striving to do what God has planned for us as we continue each day,” asserted James.
DeLeon and Denise Wilks
“I was in a state of disbelief, shock, uncertainty and anticipation. It was unexpected and was something I was not prepared for,” remarked DeLeon Wilks in response to how he felt when he discovered his wife, Denise, had breast cancer.
It has been just over a year since Denise Wilks received the news that she had Stage 3 breast cancer, and as DeLeon describes it, ” life has been a roller coaster” ever since.
At the time of the diagnosis, DeLeon was still teaching agriculture at Midway High School and Denise was working as a nurse with Community Health Care and Hospice. She is currently on medical leave and DeLeon has retired.
Even though both Denise and DeLeon expressed that his working might have been a good distraction during her illness, DeLeon stressed that is was part of the struggle he faced during their journey.
“I wanted to be with Denise as much as possible. I even bought a cot so I could sleep in the room with her when she was in the hospital. But I was torn with my duties as a husband and father and that of the responsibilities of my job teaching. I would spend time each night writing lesson plans for the substitute the next day so they would have something meaningful to do. It was a constant struggle I faced the entire time,” expressed Wilks. “Both my work and caring for Denise was very personal to me. It did create a dilemma as I juggled my time between them both.”
Denise shared that she had been doing everything possible to remain healthy and was surprised to find the cancer during her routine mammogram. She was 48 when she was diagnosed.
“It was surprising because I had been doing everything I could for early detection. I had no family history of cancer but did discover my cancer to be the estrogen produced type. Fortunately it is one of the better types to have because it is so treatable. I had my ovaries removed this summer and my doctors assured me that my ovaries were where the cancer was being fed,” explained Denise.
She had a mastectomy to remove her right breast and began a experimental dosage of chemotherapy every two weeks for what was to be eight treatments. However she only was able to take five treatment due to the extremely bad reaction she had to the chemo.
“I have never been one to be sick,” she pointed out.“The chemo made me deathly sick. I had to go to the emergency room at Sampson Regional three times and also return to Duke as a result of the chemotherapy lowering my white blood count so much.”
It was one of the visits to the emergency room that DeLeon shared really tested his faith and strength.
“We had been to the hospital twice before when Denise was not doing well. But following her fifth chemo treatment, Denise became deathly ill. After spending some time there, we felt we did not receive the care that her doctor from Duke had prescribed and we had issues. Fortunately the issues were resolved and we received the care that was needed for Denise to get better. I do feel that our local medical facilities need to develop a better working relationship with other health care facilities that have more experience in dealing with cancer patients. We are fortunate to have facilities here that can serve those in need. Had it not been that Denise being a nurse and both of us having some knowledge, we were not bullied or sent home without receiving the care she needed,” asserted DeLeon.
He said he learned that part of his responsibilities during Denise’s illness was to ensure that everything that she was having to undergo was done properly and was in her health’s best interest.
“I saw the overseeing of her treatment as a big part of my support for Denise. I wanted to make sure everything was done right,” he stressed.
Denise’s chemotherapy treatment ended after the fifth dose because her body could not withstand the intense medicine she was being given. She then began 33 radiation treatments that she had daily in Clinton, and took 30 days of oral chemotherapy.
“The Clinton Radiology Center is excellent and I could not ask for better care anywhere. It was senseless to drive to Durham everyday when we have such a great facility here in Clinton,” said Denise. “I did not experience any problems with the radiation nor the oral chemo,” added the cancer patient.
Denise had a PET Scan and CT in April and received a clean report stating no active cancer development in her body.
“DeLeon was there every step of the way for me. We have been so blessed. Not only did I have his unwavering support, care, love and concern, we both had so much support from the community… it was unbelievable. I have never seen so many cards, food, flowers and outpouring of concern as we received. I have always been told that if you give, God will return it to you 10 times. He has,” remarked Denise.
She shared that one day she looked out her window and saw a couple of her dearest friends putting out pine straw and potted flowers in her front yard. It was very overwhelming for her to see so much care and concern from everyone.
“I realize that people want to express their concern,but it does become a bit overwhelming when so many people came up to me and wanted to know how Denise was doing,” DeLeon acknowledged. “I formed a form answer to deal with it. ‘She’s fine.’ That is not to say I did not appreciate their concern and caring, it was just a constant reminder that we were facing a real battle. I am thankful we received such care and concern,” he admitted.
Both Denise and DeLeon stated that their sons, Cameron and Jonathan, were very supportive during the whole experience.
“I have never been one to ask anyone to do for me,” said Denise. “But they saw how I was and they saw me in a new light and I was amazed how they responded and picked up on what I needed and did it. They have been a blessing to us both,” remarked Denise. “This experience has been no walk in the park but I have seen others that have had it much worse than me. I am so grateful for the new technology and research that has come about as a result of the fight put forth by the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life and Susan G. Komen Foundation. Life is better because so many people care,” asserted Denise.
“I still am concerned that Denise was not able to take her full treatment of chemo. There is always that thought in the back of my mind that the cancer might return. We are a team and I am not certain how I would function without her,” shared DeLeon.
Denise is much more positive in her reaction to her journey. “I know that mammograms are on 80 percent accurate and PET Scans are only 90 percent effective. But they are helpful in detection. I know I am going to be alright. DeLeon does too. He is just continuing his care and support as he thinks about it for me,” expressed Denise.