When Caldwell Elementary School's team for the Race for the Cure participates in the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, this is not simply a group of people supporting a worthy cause.
The team includes three members who have had up-close-and-personal encounters with breast cancer, the disease for which the Komen cause originated. These are cancer survivors Janelle Haley, who taught third grade at the school; Peggy Chennault, a fifth-grade teacher whose specialty was science; and Dot Jones, who was the school librarian. All are now retired and say they are leading healthy lives.
The other Caldwell team members walk out of respect for what their colleagues have endured and, thankfully, have overcome.
But the three survivors are keenly aware that though they won their battles with this insidious disease, they must remain vigilant because there are many who have had recurrences. And they also want their friends and families to be aware of warning signs and take precautionary measures to avoid the disease that once threatened their lives.
Dot Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, but says she is "now cancer-free and I have no problems."
"I was at an inservice meeting, getting ready to go back to school, when the doctor's office called and said my test was positive," Jones said
"They did scans and I had surgery to have one breast removed," she said.
"I was out of school for five weeks, then back at school but had to have chemotherapy once a week for eight weeks," she said. "I'd take my treatment on Thursday, then be back at school on Friday.
"Everyone was so good to work around my schedule," she said. "I've been cancer-free since then with no problems."
Jones said she did not have to undergo radiation therapy.
She noted that her cancer was detected through a mammogram. "I didn't feel the cancerous lump," she said. "The doctors had to hunt to find it, but it was a very aggressive type and had already spread to two lymph nodes."
Jones is aware that many others have not been so fortunate as she was, noting that she lost "a really good friend to breast cancer in 1993."
At that juncture, Jones had not had a mammogram.
"The last thing she told me was to get one," she said. "She told me, 'Dot, you need to get a mammogram. I made a promise to her that I would do my best, and I've kept the promise.
"That year was my first time to do the Race for the Cure and I've walked every one but two since then — I missed one year when my mother passed away and the other time I had to have surgery.
"I walk in my friend's honor every year," she said.
Jones noted that Caldwell Elementary has had several employees who have had breast cancer and each year the school has a team to participate in the Race for the Cure.
Haley, in a previous account in which she championed the importance of mammograms and self-examination, says she won't ever let that message go silent. She says she's healthy today, but she doesn't take her health for granted.
Though she would be among the first to advocate annual mammograms, Haley found out through her own experience that sometimes this just isn't enough. She knows that there are times when one has to be vigilant in demanding more tests and more information because the usual means of finding the problem aren't telling the full story.
Haley's problem started in 2004 when she discovered a lump in her left breast. It was unusual in its shape, but she knew that it didn't belong there.
She had not ignored her health, routinely practicing self-examination and having a mammogram every year. At the time she felt the lesion, it had been almost a year since her last mammogram.
What she discovered actually felt like "more of a hard place."
Following the discovery, she went to her family practice physician, Dr. Deborah Quade, who sent her for a mammogram. It revealed nothing, but both Haley and the doctor knew there was something there. Both could feel it.
The next stop was at the office of Dr. Dana Abraham, a breast surgeon in Little Rock, who sent Haley immediately to Baptist Health Imaging Center.
Again, tests were inconclusive, but there was "a dark spot" that could be detected.
"It's so funny because everybody could tell something was there, but it wasn't showing up on the tests," Haley said.
This is why Haley says one must be vigilant. She was doing all the things that the experts recommend, but no test revealed the actual problem.
"After Dr. Abraham looked at it, though, she knew something was there and she did a biopsy to remove the lump that wasn't really a lump," Haley said.
That was when the mystery was solved, Haley said.
What apparently had been a lump at one time "had flattened out instead of staying in the form of a lump," she said.
She asked whether her condition was curable and was told it was "very treatable." She was then sent to Baptist Medical Center for tests, a chest X-ray, blood work, a CT scan and a bone scan.
Haley said she was blessed to have "a strong support system," staring with husband Gerald, whom she called her "lifesaver."
"He was with me with everything. He went with me to every one of my treatments and every doctor's appointment."
Following the initial lumpectomy, tests were done to study the situation, while the Haleys, their family and friends continued to pray for her full recovery.
"After Dr. Abraham studied the results of the biopsy, she told me I was cancer-free, but she also told me it probably would return."
And that was the point at which Haley had to make probably the most difficult decision of her life. She could have another lumpectomy that would involve removing more tissue or she could have a mastectomy, and depending on test results, might not have to take any further treatment.
The doctor also told Haley that the kind of cancer she had "probably would recur in the other breast."
With that information, she and her husband talked and prayed and the decision was made "to take all precautions and undergo a double mastectomy."
Haley had recently retired from a long teaching career, but continued to serve as a substitute teacher all the way up to the time of her surgery. She said having "something extra to do helped me to not think about it all day long."
She had the surgery — without reconstructive procedure — but this wasn't the end of the treatment since cancer was found in one lymph node.
She was sent to Dr. Marianne Harrington, an oncologist, who led her into chemotherapy and eventually radiation.
This was no easy journey for Haley, but she handled it with a positive attitude and, again, with the support of family and friends.
Along the way, she experienced the loss of her hair and other side effects.
"For about two days every time, I'd have leg pain. I could keep food down, but I had no appetite.
"They put a port in to give the drugs and I would advise anyone to have that because if you do it through your arms, they get to looking so bad and there are other side effects.
"Every three months I would have to have a chest X-ray, a brain scan and a body scan to make sure it was all working, and I had blood work every week."
Heeding the advice of a friend, she kept a journal of the entire experience. "Since my time with this, a friend from church has been helped through the book and what I had done. I would call her every other day and give her encouragement because so many people called me.
"My church family, Holland Chapel, was wonderful. Every person there prayed for me; they visited me; they brought us food. It was unreal."
Just before she completed chemotherapy, Harrington told Haley that she would have to undergo radiation.
"I went back to Dr. Abraham and Dr. Quade. Both encouraged me and agreed with Dr. Harrington, so I went to CARTI and the doctor I talked to there — Dr. Ross — was a cancer survivor.
"After all the tests were done, Dr. Ross told me that she would have radiation if the situation applied to her.
"I liked all of my doctors. All were female and I felt real comfortable with them. On Oct. 6, I started radiation, and I went every day, Monday-Friday, for six weeks.
"And I didn't have really bad side effects. It wasn't too bad. It burned a little under my arm, where they were shooting the beam.
"It doesn't take five minutes to do this," she said. "From the time you go in till you leave, it's not over 10 minutes. That was from January to October. Then I had to go back to Dr. Abraham two more times for checkups. but I have to continue for the rest of my life going to Dr. Harrington for blood work.
"I'm glad to be able to tell my story and I'm always eager to join the Caldwell Race for the Cure team (for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure) and be a part of this," she said.
"I'm also fortunate to work with senior adults at church. Friends like that will carry you through.
"If you know of people who are about to go through this and they have no one, you can be of help to them," Haley said. "Everyone needs someone, especially someone to pray for them.
"I had people praying for me from Benton to California. Someone would tell me that someone from another place was praying for me. You have to have prayers to get through it all."