Just a few years ago Nancy Hughes could lift mountains of paperwork, rearrange office furniture and stand on her feet for hours at a time. As executive assistant at the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, the petite fiery redhead put in long hours at her job helping give state employees a voice in government.
Back in 2003, Nancy learned she had breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy, rounds of chemotherapy and the cancer went into remission. In 2014, however, it came back with a vengeance.
“I first noticed something was wrong when I bent over to pick up something,” she said. “I felt something pull, and had trouble walking. After about a month I went to a chiropractor about my back. He took x-rays, and they showed either severe osteoporosis or the cancer was back and in my bones.”
A trip to her oncologist revealed the cancer had indeed spread.
“I had no idea breast cancer could come back like that,” Nancy said. “This time I was scared. During the time I was cancer-free, I had been participating in the Oklahoma American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, and the Relay For Life. I liked being a beacon of hope for others that this disease could be beat.”
So once again she began the treatments, hoping for a positive result.
“This time it was radiation to my hip, spine and right arm,” she said. “It helped with the pain I was having but I do not remember much about that time. I lost control of my body functions, could barely walk and did not eat much. My employer offered me six months of leave to keep my insurance and then social security kicked in, so I took it. I could no longer do my job and was actually a liability to them.”
More than four years after her cancer re-occurrence, the disease has been relentless.
“When it came back, it had spread throughout my bones,” Nancy said. “My right arm fractured, and I had to wear a brace for two years to keep it stable. The bone was almost clear and looked like Swiss cheese. I had the option of getting surgery to put a rod in to stabilize it, but there was a possibility I could lose all the use of that arm. Even having limited use was better than losing it all, so I chose to not have the surgery.”
Using the services offered at the Oklahoma American Cancer Society has been a godsend, Nancy says. The organization offers wigs, scarves, and turbans, all free of charge to cancer patients. They also provide free rides to and from treatment in the Road to Recovery Program.
“Helping people like Nancy is at the heart of what we do every day,” said Jennifer Redman, OKACS program manager. “Not only do we have an entire wig room, but transportation is consistently named as one of the top needs for cancer patients. Our volunteer driver program ensures patients complete their treatment and we can increase the number of cancer survivors. We always need more volunteer drivers and have our own fleet of vehicles. So if you have some time to volunteer, we can always use the help.”
While each day is a struggle, Nancy refuses to let the disease dampen the positive attitude that has carried her through life.
“When I wake up every morning, it is a gift of life,” she said. “I could choose to wallow in pity and feel sorry for myself, but what does that do? I choose to enjoy each day and hope a cure will be found in my lifetime. Sometimes the dark side will come through. Like a day or so ago I realized once my hair is gone this time, I will most likely be bald the rest of my life. That sucks. But I must play the cards I am dealt, so I will save a few bucks on shampoo and conditioner! It’s all about re-framing the negatives and finding the positives.”
Nancy says her family is her foundation. Her husband Mike, their two daughters and four grandsons all pitch in to make life as normal as possible. And throughout her journey, she continually finds new ways to reinvent herself and help others.
“Sharing my story with the Oklahoma American Cancer Society and others is so important,” Nancy said. “I want everyone to know the big ‘C’ word is not always a death sentence. It does not always return like it did for me. Stay hopeful, happy and enjoy what you can. Don’t dwell on the horrible parts, just try to look for the good in everything. Believe me, it is there.”