Tough road but one of gratitude for cancer victim

It's not an easy subject for Twylah Nightengale of Florence to talk about. In fact, she rarely talks about her cancer with people, other than her family.

But she did talk this day, and recalled the pain, the struggle, and the hope she has for the future.

It began in the spring of 2003 when she found a lump on her breast. Twylah went to her doctor that same day who sent her to a surgeon who ordered a mammogram.

The Marion County native then was sent for a needle biopsy.

"The pathologist called me and said, 'Twylah, you have cancer.' I didn't know what to say. There was a long pause and the doctor asked if I understood," Twylah said.

She understood.

Twylah and her family had already planned a weeklong vacation in Nashville, Tenn., and she wondered if she should go. The doctor told her to go because after surgery and treatments, she probably wouldn't feel like a trip.

So she went.

"I don't regret that. I had a great time," Twylah said.

After she returned, Twylah had a radical mastectomy with the entire breast surgically removed with 11 lymph nodes. Of those 11, nine were malignant which means they were cancerous.

She returned home with drains in her side to remove the blood from the surgery.

Daughter Peggy Leitzer, the "squeamish one" of Chicago, Ill., came to care for her mother.

"She was a real trooper," Twylah said.

When the incision was healed, Twylah began the grueling regiment of chemotherapy three days per week.

The first medication she was given was adrimyacin.

"It's called the 'red devil' and it was," Twylah said.

After chemo came radiation therapy. Husband Don was by Twylah's side during the entire process.

"Don stuck with me. He took me to every treatment and radiation appointment," she said. One time he did let Twylah's twin sister, Bula Goering of Moundridge, take her.

Bula was diagnosed this year with breast cancer.

There were days when Twylah didn't have the strength or desire to do much of anything, a far cry from an independent woman in her 60s who was used to being the caregiver not the patient.

"I couldn't have gotten through all of that without my family, friends, and all of the prayers," she said. "There were churches from the four corners of the U.S. praying for me, including my home church (Florence Christian Church)."

Having a large family and a large circle of friends sure helps in times of need.

Three daughters, five sisters, and three brothers, and their families helped Twylah and Don with meals, caregiving, housekeeping, and support.

Teddy bears are a symbol for cancer patients. And Twylah received a lot of teddy bears.

She developed friendships and bonds with women that may never be broken because of her illness.

Gift baskets, cards, and teddy bears helped Twylah's recovery.

The doctors said her cancer was fast and aggressive, "So it was attacked aggressively," Twylah said.

A quilt is neatly folded on the back of a chair in the Nightengales' living room. Twylah's sister, Fern Goodwin of Burns, gave Twylah the quilt which she used those nights after chemotherapy when she was sick and couldn't sleep. Touching it even now, five years later, brings tears to Twylah's eyes because she appreciates the comfort the quilt brought to her during her worst times.

Chloe Triggs of Florence gave her gift baskets.

"I always had cravings while I was going through treatments. One time I had a craving for olives. So, what did I have when I returned home from chemotherapy? A gift bag with a jar of olives from Chloe," Twylah said.

Sadly, Chloe died in April but Twylah is grateful for the friendship. This year she will have to walk the survivor's lap at the Marion County Relay For Life fund-raiser without her friend.

"Relay for Life means a lot to me and my family," Twylah said.

The relay is a symbol of hope and support and Twylah has tried to walk the survivor's lap and additional laps but this year, she'll be happy if she is able to walk the survivor's lap.

As a result of the radiation therapy, Twylah now has congestive heart failure. The medications she takes for that and her cancer have caused her arthritis to become more debilitating which has limited her walking.

A checkup in March indicated that she was doing well enough to be on a six-month examination schedule instead of every three months.

In a couple of weeks, Twylah will be back in the hospital to have skin cancer surgery but remains optimistic.

"I'll get past this," she said.

Twylah said she never fully regained her strength and has good days and bad days. She's not one to sit around and do nothing, but she has learned to be a woman of leisure, knowing her limitations.

In recalling her experiences and life with cancer, Twylah continues to express her profound gratefulness.

Particularly her daughters, siblings, and friends like Marge Sandwell, Maggie Meisinger, Charla Wheeler, former employer Brenda McGinness, and of course, her husband of 52 years.

Twylah encourages others to support those with cancer.

"Bring in meals, send cards," she said. "It all helps."

It saddens Twylah to know there are those cancer patients who do not have anyone to help them.

"Cancer has been a humbling experience."

Relay for Life

Twenty-two teams have registered with 251 walkers planning to participate in the Marion County Relay for Life Aug. 1-2 at Warrior Stadium, Marion.

Donations are being accepted for luminarias and for walkers.

Luminarias are $10 and may be purchased in memory of a cancer victim or in honor of a cancer survivor.

A meal for cancer survivors will be available beginning at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 1, at no charge for survivors. Others who wish to eat may purchase a meal for $5.

The survivor's lap begins at 7 p.m.

Names on the luminarias will be read at 10 p.m.