The Willsons, Stephen and Carlene share their cancer story.
This week presents a challenge in the form of a Relay Riddle. What costs nothing, but gives much? What will enrich those who receive, without making the giver poorer? What takes only a moment, but can leave a memory that lasts a lifetime? What brings happiness into a home and good will into business? What can bring cheer to the discouraged and sunshine to the sad? It comes in every size and color; it cannot be bought, borrowed, or stolen. It is useless until it is given away.
Retta 'Carlene' Willson of Elmo is a graceful, demure woman. A devoted wife of 46 years, loving mother of five sons and two daughters, and one of the strong, silent survivors among us. Carlene has a deep aversion for September even though she celebrates her birthday in that month. Three consecutive Septembers brought her and her family some very difficult trials - the three D's: death, divorce, and diagnosis. Banding together when buckling under would have been easier, Carlene faced the discovery of breast cancer with the stalwart support of her partner and companion, Stephen, and their daughter, Melanie. Melanie and her children were living with Carlene at the time when a routine mammogram at her annual check-up revealed a "questionable mass." An ultrasound and biopsy in Provo confirmed the suspicion of cancer. Ten days later found her in surgery for a lumpectomy and the harvesting of 30 lymph nodes. Some of the nodes were cancerous. Carlene then agreed to several months of chemotherapy followed by seven weeks of daily radiation. Her thoughts were simple, "I have to come back for the kids" (grandchildren). And come back she did. With grace and determination. Her grandchildren were very upset by her illness. Life as they knew it, changed again. The side effects of her treatments may have taken her energy and her hair but she would still spend precious time with her grandkids reading. One book was such a favorite that a puppy brought in for the children was named Tidalic after one of the characters.
Carlene may enjoy reading so much because she writes so much. She is writing her life story. She has been a voracious journal keeper for more than 40 years. The journals have helped her through the emotional struggles of cancer as well as serving some very practical uses when dates or events have been in question. Sometimes providing comfort when she was lonely or missing her family during the week long stays at her daughter-in-law's childhood home for daily radiation treatments. There was a built-in solace staying with her son's mother-in-law as she, too, was a breast cancer survivor. Carlene's last radiation treatment was just one year ago on May 28, 2009, and her hair is still coming back.
Seeing her now, one doesn't notice hair or no hair, Carlene's outstanding feature has been in place though it all - her dazzling smile. It's one of those slow-to-spread, shy smiles that takes your feet right out from under you. Carlene knew she had a responsibility throughout this battle and she defines it this way, "I have to keep a smile on my face so people would know it's just something you have to deal with." She credits the cancer for compelling her make the time to reset her priorities in life. Among those are keeping a sense of humor and a positive attitude. One example she and Stephen shared was of an "amazing old guy at the chemo lab" who would draw a crowd telling jokes and stories that had the nurses and patients laughing. Carlene's humor is apparent in small things like getting a kick out of "going to bed without any hair" and like magic - "having a whole head of hair in the morning."
Smiling wasn't always easy. Some days Carlene had to be reminded to smile. She feels cancer has been as hard on her family as it has been on her, and some of the lessons in humility have been hard to swallow. But Carlene found the strength to "hold her chin up and keep on pushing" through the many cards and prayers of friends. Friends and angels, angels and friends - when she needed the help, they were there. Unannounced and unexpected, angels lifted Carlene above the despair that sometimes sets in when confronted with a disease like cancer. She tells of one discouraging day in the chemo lab after a treatment waiting for her ride when "a beautiful girl just came up to her and gave her a hug, saying 'you're going to be OK, you're going to get your hair back and be OK.'" Carlene has felt so many angels during this trial; she knows "there isn't enough time or paper to thank everybody who helped."
Carlene and Stephen agree on several lessons they've learned; nobody asks for cancer, it's something you wouldn't even wish on an enemy. If you suspect any kind of cancer - get it checked fast "because six days with cancer is seven days too long. The quicker it's caught, the better the chances of recovery are." Carlene has special reasons to kick the cancer and keep on smiling. Sarah (4), Russell (6), Mina (9), and Tyler (14) and 26 of their cousins scattered as far as Germany, where #27 will be born in August. It's a good thing Carlene and Stephen love to travel and have current passports. Carlene looks around now and marvels at how "bright and beautiful everything is." Cancer has sharpened her focus and brought life into vivid color. Little Sarah, wearing a smile, explained it this way to Carlene, "I got rid of your cancer because I loved it out of you." Cancer didn't stand a chance. So if you encounter someone who is too weak or tired to give you a smile, give them one of yours. It will go miles.
Relay for Life is the best opportunity Emery County has to make a significant impact on the devastating effects of cancer. Your support can be monetary, physical, or emotional. All of these things are crucial to the success of our Relay. Look around at your family, friends, and neighbors who have faced their mortality, see their strength. Reflect on those in your life who made a difference to a loved one while entrenched in the battle. Cherish the memories of the brave souls who were engulfed by the disease. Won't you join us in the fight for a cure? Come be a part of something wonderful. June 11, 2010 at 6 p.m. at the High School track. Bring your smile, your family, and your friends for fun and fellowship.