Profiles in Courage

  • By:  Kindra McDonald Greene

Don’t miss this story of courageous local women who have faced life-altering health problems.

They’re mothers and wives, a running partner, a Sunday School teacher, a hairstylist—all warriors who sat face to face with a doctor that announced their lives were about to change. Let’s meet local wonder women without capes who share their stories of bravery in the face of life-altering health revelations. 

“Being Strong Is The Only Choice”

Says Chantal Rose-Denman, Ultra-Runner & Cancer Survivor

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For Chantal Rose-Denman of Virginia Beach, December 14, 2018, was the day her life changed. Chantal is 44, a wife and mother of four kids ages 2 to 16, and a runner. Not just any runner, she’s an ultra-runner, running races between 31 and 50 miles! 

For Chantal running was part of her identity, as well as a coping mechanism. In the summer of 2018, while training for a 50k race, she noticed a nagging annoyance, a lump behind her right knee that was interfering with her running stride and range of motion.

She thought she had a stress fracture, but didn’t want to take time off from training, so she treated it with massage and physical therapy. With no improvement by December, her physical therapist suggested an x-ray. The x-ray led to an MRI, which escalated to an MRI with emergent contrast. 

On Friday, December 14, 2018, her doctor told she had an osteosarcoma tumor behind her knee, a rare form of bone cancer that could have been growing for the last decade. “My husband and I were shocked. You just never think it will happen to you,” Chantal said. “My first question to the doctor was whether I’d be able to run the race the next day. His response was, ‘I want you to run it.’” She ran the 50 kilometers by herself, thinking the whole time it might be her last run. 

The year ended in a blur of research, specialists, and biopsies. Chantal’s persistence in finding the right care led her to the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, NC, where surgery was scheduled for January 11, 2019. 

With her mother, husband, and children by her side, Chantal underwent an 8-hour surgery, which led to the removal of a rare high-grade surface osteosarcoma, along with all the necessary margins. A clean area was left with titanium rods in a total knee and partial femur replacement. This procedure saved her leg but confirmed she would have to begin chemotherapy treatment.

Facing chemo while learning to walk again was grueling. “The unknown is always the hardest, but with a walker and then a cane, I learned to put one foot in front of the other again,” Chantal said. “It was very hard to stay strong, but I had to for my family.”  She endured infection, constant sickness, a second leg surgery, and six blood transfusions. 

Through it all Chantal was overwhelmed by the love of her church community, neighbors, friends, and family, who supported her in every way possible through this journey. “I’m not one to ask for help, but people just came out of the woodwork,” she said. “There was a meal train for my family for eight months! People helped with housework, childcare, everything.”

Chantal radiates positivity with a smile that seems lit from within. “I have a carpe diem mentality now. Every day I want to be positive and inspiring to others,” she said. “So many people have helped me, and I want to constantly be kind and do good things. We don’t do this enough in our world.” She credits the love, prayers, and support she has received from so many for getting her through this year.

“I feel like that is my purpose now to help others,” she continued. “If a year ago someone had told me I was going to go through this, I wouldn’t have thought I could. You never know how strong you can be until being strong is the only choice you have.” 

Running is her happy place, and it surely prepared her for the race of her life. “I made it clear to the medical team that my goal is to run again, but with a different purpose, to help other people, to pay it forward.”

Chantal continues to visit Duke every month for scans and is in remission.

Key To Coping: Faith, Family, and A Sense of Humor

Hampton Proton Institute Part of a Perfectly Orchestrated Plan

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“Do you want to see my tumor? His name is Ziggy,” Debbie Owens announced when we met. Debbie’s infectious laugh helps her face every obstacle with humor. She showed me an MRI image of her tumor, and I could see the lumpy, not quite circular face of the comic strip character, Ziggy.

In June 2009, Debbie began seeing doctors for excessive fatigue, jerking in her left leg, swollen feet, and headaches. After nearly two years of unexplained symptoms, a gamut of doctors, and numerous misdiagnoses, Debbie had an MRI in January 2011 that revealed a meningioma tumor on her brain, directly on her optic nerves. 

At age 48, the Chesapeake wife and mother of three faced the reality that she might lose her vision and even her personality. “I’ve spent a long time working on this level of snarkiness,” she said. Clearly Debbie’s sense of humor helped her to cope with this diagnosis, but she credits the treatment option available to her as the reason she is still cracking jokes.

While the tumor was not cancerous, it required treatment to stop growing. Regular radiation has entrance and exit points directly on the brain, and her optic nerves would likely be irradiated. She could lose her vision and have significant personality changes. All the while Debbie was being misdiagnosed, Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute (HUPTI) was being built, and proton therapy—which uses high-energy beams to treat tumors—became an option.

There are only eight proton institutes in the United States, and the Hampton facility is world’s largest free-standing proton therapy institute. Debbie is still in awe that this treatment designed for her type of tumor was here in her backyard. 

“I saw the timeline of the institute being built and how it lined up with all the times I was misdiagnosed and searching for answers,” she recalled. “HUPTI hadn’t been built yet [because] they weren’t ready for me yet. I saw in that instant how much God cares for me personally.”

Debbie received treatment every day for six weeks. “I can’t say enough about the people there,” she said. “They were empathetic and supportive every step of the way. I wanted to give peace to my children who were watching me. The greatest gift was to give me as much normalcy as possible.” 

The proton radiation completely stopped the growth of Debbie’s tumor, and while ‘Ziggy’ still remains on her brain, radiation has eliminated its DNA. She has her eyesight, her humor, and a story she loves sharing with people. 

“I want to encourage people with a diagnosis to look at all options,” she said. Even though it turned out that her symptoms were not related to the tumor, Debbie knows it was a perfectly orchestrated plan that led her to find the tumor, just as the Proton Therapy Institute was opening for patients like her.

Appreciate the Unexpected Joys, Says Janelle Hamilton

Fighting Metastatic Cancer with Family at Her Side

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To see Janelle Hamilton at one of her daughter’s soccer games or to be a client fortunate enough to sit in her salon chair for a haircut or color, you would never know she is actively in the fight of her life. Janelle, a 45-year-old Suffolk resident, is a wife and mother, a local business owner, and hairstylist living with metastatic breast cancer. 

Janelle was diagnosed at age 39—before the recommended age for annual mammograms–with no history of cancer in her family. The diagnosis came as a shock even after she identified a visible lump in her breast. She never considered it would be cancer. 

In 2014, at the end of a horrific year which saw the sudden death of her 16-year-old stepdaughter, Janelle did everything she could to shoulder her own grief and that of her husband and two younger daughters. It was the one year that she didn’t get an annual physical exam and the year a 10-centimeter tumor was growing in her body. 

“Even before the biopsy came back, I had a mediport installed and was given 6 aggressive and immediate chemotherapy treatments,” she said.

Janelle has had to learn a lot about cancer in a short time, primarily that very little funding goes toward metastatic cancer research. Stage 4 breast cancer means the cancer has metastasized, traveling to create tumors in other parts of the body. This means Janelle will be in treatment for the rest of her life.

Janelle defies the image of someone living with cancer. “I don’t look sick and I think a lot of people don’t understand what metastatic cancer is,” she said. “You don’t look at someone that is 45 and functioning and has a full head of hair and think that they are sick. People see the outside, [but] they forget that inside I live every day in pain. The medicines I take are causing nerve damage, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I live with pain because the medicine is keeping the cancer away.” 

As one of her clients, I can attest to the fact that Janelle doesn’t look sick, but I know that if I’m feeling the slightest sniffle or scratchy throat, I need to cancel my appointment. A small cold for me could mean a hospital stay for Janelle.

Every week when I see her social media post about her “spa visit,” I know she is not getting a facial or mani/pedi. She’s at Virginia Oncology getting chemotherapy. For five years, she’s received chemotherapy three times a week, but you won’t see Janelle without a smile. She keeps her spirits up by singing the Matthew Wilder song from the 1980s, “Ain’t nothing going to break my stride. Ain’t nothing going to slow me down.”

Janelle does indeed keep on moving. If survival has a theme song, this is it. “I go by this motto now,” she said. “I could let it bring me down, or I can just fight it head on. It may not change my diagnosis, but it changes how I live my life with this diagnosis.”

Janelle never misses her daughters’ games or school activities. “I’m intentional about making memories, but I don’t want to force it on them,” she said. “They are not living their life thinking, ‘My mom has cancer,’ and they shouldn’t be. They know that I took them to every practice and was at every game.”

“I find the unexpected joys in life,” she continued. “Laughter is essential. I choose to laugh a lot. The biggest message is choosing how you want to live. Cancer doesn’t define me. I have to show my daughters that I’m strong. I want them to see that side of me.” 

You never know the battles people are fighting. All around us are strong women who have overcome serious health conditions, wearing their survival stories like armor. I was not alive the first time my mom was diagnosed with cancer, but I was there as a teenager and then as an adult for her next two diagnoses. Each time she was a fighter. 

Shirley McDonald, my mom, celebrates her 79th birthday this month. She’s a joyful spirit, a feisty, faithful, fiercely independent woman who, like Chantal, Debbie, and Janelle, serves as an amazing example of resilience. 

Kindra McDonald Greene is a poet, educator, and writer. She teaches at The Muse Writers Center, and lives, hikes and bakes in the City of Mermaids with her husband. Visit www.kindramcdonald.com.

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