Breast cancer and a hair stylist brought two women together Monday to discuss their journeys with God through the valley of the shadow of death.
Tiffany Wood, owner of Omega Hair Salon, invited the two women to share with cosmetology students their stories of survival, to help them learn how to build relationships and better offer resources to their clients. She offers informational pamphlets and fliers that were given to her during breast cancer awareness training at North Cleveland Baptist Church in September.
Sylvania (Sylvia) Bailey, 60, and 55-year-old Rosita Bryan told of their devastation upon learning of their diagnoses. They are two very different women. Bailey was born in Rhea County and was a seamstress, caregiver and cleaner. Bryan was born in Vermont. She is a graduate of Lee University. Both she and her husband, Bishop David Bryan, are ordained ministers in the Church of God of Prophecy.
Their stories of survival are of faith in God and support from immediate, extended and church families.
“Sure I did,” Bailey quickly replied when asked if she thought she would die of cancer. “But, having peace with God is the key to it all.”
She told of demonic dreams that kept her awake until she began sleeping on her Bible. “Nothing can penetrate the word of God. When the enemy attacks me, he leaves me alone now because I told him he’s an idiot. I said it don’t matter whether I live or whether I die, you lose because I’m going to serve God.”
Bryan went through her battle four years ago. She likes to say, “I’m 55 and proud to be alive.”
Life is not always fair and it can sometimes be downright cruel. The Book of Job is a study of the worst-case scenario, “yet Job wisely assessed God’s role in trying circumstances of loss and poor health.”
From Job, she learned two valuable lessons from the Old Testament character.
“First, the things we dread most can be used to test our character and make us stronger. The other is that God will provide the strength and comfort to see us through and I have found that to be so true,” Bryan said.
Recovery is the divergence point in their stories. Both women chose double mastectomies. Bailey chose reconstructive surgery and implants. Bryan opted for prostheses.
Bailey went through her bout in 2010 and so far, she says, “I’m still a survivor.” She went for a checkup three months ago and had a clear mammogram.
“I didn’t think I’d have to have another mammogram because I have implants,” she said. “But, as long as you have breast tissue, you have to have a mammogram.”
Bailey is glad she chose a double mastectomy but regrets her decision to have implants.
“I have problems now with this right arm. This whole side of my body is cold,” she said. “If I had known what I know now, I would have never had implants — never — never, never, never. I would have been flat chested.”
Bailey is not married, but wanted to leave open the possibility of marriage. Her doctor said many women without implants have experienced the loss of affection from their husbands. The women experience depression that sometimes leads to suicide.
“My doctor talked me into getting implants,” she said. “They hurt all the time. I’m having trouble with this arm because my muscles are tied too tight.”
Bryan said her surgeon usually did not recommend mastectomies, but did in her case.
“I’d already decided. I’ve always said if I ever had breast cancer I was going to have a mastectomy. I had cancer in my right breast. If you have it in one breast, there is a high probability that you will get cancer in the other breast,” she said.
The surgeon believed the cancer was Stage 0 and contained in the right breast. A half-centimeter tumor was removed on Nov. 4 “and there was some invasive cancer — not as good as we’d hoped for. We went home and a few weeks later, we celebrated Thanksgiving.”
Bryan had spoken to other women who had implants and more often than not, their stories were painful.
Her husband left the decision up to her. He was just thankful she survived.
“My chest was never sunken in (after the mastectomy). I’ve always been small chested. I was very comfortable. I was small chested and small breasted and proud of it,” she proclaimed. “I did not get the reconstructive surgery. I wear prostheses now and wear them proudly. On Saturday, I don’t wear them. I’ll put on a sweatshirt.”
Their stories and familial histories of cancer are similar enough. Bailey lost two sisters to breast cancer and her mother to bone cancer. She was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2007.
“I knew something was wrong with my body. We have warning signs, but we just don’t know exactly what it is telling us,” she said. There was blood in her urine and a knot in her back. “It felt like I was carrying a rock in my back because it was so heavy.”
Her doctor’s diagnosis was kidney cancer.
“The first thing people hear the word ‘cancer,’ the first thing they think of is ‘death,’” she said.
Though she had no health insurance, Bailey went to a Chattanooga hospital where “the Lord blessed me so well. I was able to have the surgery and I qualified for the medical assistance I needed and was able to tap into the resources. I was able to have surgery and didn’t have to pay one copper penny.”
She lost a kidney, but did not have to go through radiation or chemotherapy.
“When they took out the kidney, they took out the cancer,” she said. “So the Lord blessed me in that area.”
Three years down the road, she was ignorant of breast cancer like many other black women.
“We don’t check ourselves like we should. We don’t watch what we eat like we should,” she said. “In 2010, I was not watching my body and I kept thinking something is not right in my chest area. I gave myself a bath. The best way to check yourself is when you’re bathing. Soap will help you find the knots.”
With cancer prevalent in her family, she should have paid closer attention to her body, but she did not and had not had a mammogram since 2007. Even then, the doctor saw something that was probably hard tissue.
“And me being ignorant and not checking my body, in 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said.
Bryan taught special education at Cleveland High School in 2009. On Sept. 24 of that year, she and her husband celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary. He sent her a huge bouquet of red long-stem roses and baby’s breath.
“He left his office and came to school and picked me up. He carried me home, took my flowers in and then went back to his office. I went to the mailbox to collect the mail and I received a letter with regard to my recent mammogram. It stated there was an irregularity. I immediately called my doctor’s office. She said she didn’t think there was anything to worry about, but she set up an appointment with a surgeon.”
The surgeon gave Bryan the options of waiting six months and having another mammogram, a breast MRI or a breast biopsy.
“Oftentimes women think they discover breast cancer through self-examination, a lump in the breast, that sort of thing,” Bryan said. “I had the new digital mammogram and I had what is called micro-calcifications. They looked like little dots. You couldn’t feel anything.”
She chose the biopsy because there is a family history of cancer in her family, but not a history of breast cancer. The biopsy was on Oct. 6, a Monday. Two days later, they traveled to the Bahamas on church business. Friday afternoon she got a call from her surgeon who opened the conversation with, “How are you? Are you enjoying yourself? Have you been to the beach? Have you sat in the sun?” Then the surgeon asked, “Is your husband with you? I have your results and you have breast cancer.”
Bryan’s husband has stood by her side at every doctor’s appointment, during the surgery and throughout her recovery.
“We just celebrated 30 years of wedded bliss. I married my best friend,” she said. “I’ve learned many lessons through this walk. I learned a new level of trust.”