Wanda Holt has not had it easy. A North Carolina native and mother of four, she’s faced many adversities over the years, and has learned the hard way: a positive attitude can help you get through anything. She’s turned a gloomy diagnosis into an inspiring cancer story.
In February, 2015, at the age of 39, she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer, after finding a lump the size of the tip of her pinky finger in her right breast. She immediately had a double mastectomy to remove the tumor. Then she went through 5 months of chemotherapy and immediately thereafter had a hysterectomy and 5 weeks of radiation.
After that ordeal, she endured a year of the gruesome breast reconstruction process, consisting of putting expanders where her breasts were (empty bags that doctors gradually filled with saline to let the skin stretch slowly), getting fills every 2 weeks.
“Getting my expanders filled was the most physically painful thing I went through in my entire cancer journey,” Wanda says, describing the experience like having her ribs crushed every time. Eventually the hard expanders were surgically removed and replaced with implants. Shortly thereafter, she got an infection on the right breast due to one of the stiches not closing properly. She was in hospital for 4 days, getting heavy antibiotics around the clock. But the infection was too strong and ultimately doctors decided it was safest to remove the implant on the right breast.
But Wanda’s trials didn’t end there – In October 2015 her grandma passed away and the very following October, a hurricane hit and flooded her house with 7 inches of water. Whatever she didn’t loose from the water damage, she lost from the subsequent mold.
Many years before all that happened, her ex-husband of 4 years was physically abusive. After she left him, she dated another man who asked her to marry him. They were engaged, and after they were together for 11 years, he left her for her best friend.
Wanda has been through a slew of terrible things, and admits that in the beginning of all of it, she had turned her into a person she never thought she’d be. She was very depressed.
Then things started looking better, and she stated dating a great guy, who is still her boyfriend today. But then the big news hit – she was diagnosed with cancer as described above. That’s when she started to change as a person. She says cancer helped her realize it’s about keeping positive:
“I had a choice – to let it all get me down or show people that things can get bad in life but you don’t have to let it get you down, you can keep going and change it. You can lose someone you love, you can get sick, but you’re still living. And there are hundreds of reasons to keep going.”
She says her kids were a huge part of what kept her going. She has 4 of them, ages 21, 19, 15 and 12. She wanted to be a good example for them and be strong. She still tells her daughter, “If there’s nothing you can do to change things, then deal with it and just get through it.”
Throughout Wanda’s cancer treatment she tried to remain strong, with a good sense of humor. She still jokes that she’s a “uniboober” since they removed her right implant. Her doctor gave her a removable bra implant and she’ll say to friends, “You wanna see my boob?” And pull out her implant and put it in their hand. Everyone laughs. She doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her; she prefers to make light of the situation. Right now she’s deciding if she wants to go through the whole process again, to reconstruct the right breast and get another implant.
She attributes part of her strong attitude towards her loving family and friends, who made a wonderful support system. “Everyone got together to help me celebrate each milestone, good or bad. Just having everyone together made it a positive thing.” When she started chemo and her hair began to fall out, she had a head-shaving party, where her friends and family were there to support her. Not only were they there for her, but they joined her in being bald. Her uncle, nephew, brother and a family friend were right there next to her, shaving their heads as she shaved hers, showing her she wasn’t alone.
The feel-good festivities went on: A photographer friend of Wanda’s did a glamour shoot while she was bald to show her that she was still beautiful. Friends got together and did a cookout to raise money to help her pay for treatment & bills since she was out of work at the time. Her aunt drove her to all her doctor’s appointments, even though Wanda pointed out that she was perfectly capable of driving herself. And after her chemo was over they threw her a chemo cocktail party.
Her boyfriend was a great support too, telling her that she “looked so pretty” even when she was green and puking. He shared her sense of humor, and would call her “tootsie pop” because of her shiny, bald head. He would say, “How many licks does it take to get to the middle?” and would walk by and lick her head as a joke.
When I asked Wanda what the best thing is for people to do for someone during their cancer treatment, she was very clear:
“Even when all the treatments are over, that person still has the scars and still needs to know that their family still loves them. Just because the cancer’s gone, it can still come back, and we still need friends and family’s support emotionally. You still need to be there for us.”
What cancer patients DON’T want is pity. Wanda says that the most emotionally painful part of her cancer journey was seeing her father look at her with pity. He was there for her, but he knew that he couldn’t do anything for her and he was scared. Wanda hated it. Being there for her was enough, she just didn’t want to see his pain. “I wanted to get through cancer, but I needed encouragement, not fear.”
When I asked Wanda what one piece of advice that she would give to other cancer patients, she said,
“It’s OK to cry and break down. Just don’t let it keep you down. Take a moment to scream, cry and lash out, but don’t hold on to that moment; let it go and keep going. And NEVER GIVE UP.”
Do you have an inspiring cancer story? Tell us about it, we’d love to share your success! lumpycards.com/share-your-cancer-story