Perhaps the most emotional and uplifting event during Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October in New Albany is the luncheon sponsored by Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union County.
Breast cancer survivors are honored and victims remembered along with what radiologist Dr. Justin Lohmeier describes as “testimony” from survivors describing their experiences.
One of the speakers this year was elementary school teacher Robin Merritt, wife of administrator and coach Robert Merritt.
Nurse Practitioner Kim Hardin, who is a cancer survivor as well as on the staff of the Jones Clinic and who has become the stalwart supporter for many cancer sufferers, said when she thinks of Merritt she thinks of resilience, perseverance and never quitting.
“She had issues with her therapy, she was very ill, but she kept coming back, saying treat me,” Hardin said. “She is a beautiful example of grace under fire.”
And, Hardin added, she makes the very best Paula Deen gooey butter cake in the whole world.
Merritt’s experience with cancer is fairly recent.
“I was here at the lunch last year,” she said. “It was right before the cancer.”
Shortly after attending the event she found a lump.
Merritt had been at Vanderbilt University with her brother who was getting stem cell therapy and that was pretty well consuming her life at the time.
When she did find a lump, she was reluctant to shift concern from her brother.
“The doctor said it shouldn’t be cancer. It was not supposed to be,” she said.
“I knew if it was cancer I wanted to come home,” she said, and that’s what she did.
“I didn’t say ‘why me’ but more ‘why not me,’” Merritt said. She decided, “If this is my plan, use it and use it well.”
Although Merritt’s mother died in her 40s from heart disease, she did not have a family history of cancer.
Still, that is what it was.
“When I was diagnosed I sent Robert a one-word text: Cancer,” she said.
Merritt decided to stay at school. “I told my boys but not my daughter who was away for training,” she said.
“When I told my kids was the first time I cried.”
She described the first five days after the diagnosis as a whirlwind, with a lot of emotion until she finally said, “I need normal.”
Merritt said the school staff and students were enormously supportive. One day, before her surgery, 1,200 kids wore pink at school,
“But my daughter never found out,” she said. Finally, “I sent a text saying both breasts removed, started chemo.”
It turned out the daughter did not make a big deal out of the cancer, but it perhaps indirectly helped save her own life, Merritt said.
“This year she had a mole under her arm. Another attendant saw it and said she needed to be seen,” she said.
The mole was diagnosed as Stage II melanoma. “She had surgery, is not doing chemo, is OK,” Merritt said.
Another thing that helped Merritt feel good about her daughter is that she had a genetic test done and learned that the daughter was not in danger of getting breast cancer from a hereditary standpoint.
As it turned out, Merritt’s first speech about her cancer was not at Wednesday’s luncheon; it was at a prison. “I didn’t know whether it would be with inmates or employees,” she said, having felt some apprehension. But it didn’t matter. “Whichever it was, they still needed to know (about cancer).”
Merritt took her hairdresser along for support and negotiated the razor wire, pat-downs and very extensive body searches. “I told them they might notice I was missing a couple of body parts,” she said, always trying to keep some humor about the situation.
She found she would be talking to prison employees, was given a lovely lunch and talked well beyond her allotted 20 minutes. “When you’re in the teaching business, you know when you are losing your audience,” she said, and apparently was not losing this one. The only problem was when her friend the hairdresser began loudly asking for a real knife instead of the ineffective plastic one she had been given. “Imagine shouting that you want a knife in the middle of a prison.”
Merritt said there have been so many coincidences since her cancer. “I think a coincidence is a miracle where God remains anonymous,” she said.
Her hair should have been out by the second week of chemo, but for some reason it wasn’t. She said she was at the jewelry store where Renaldo was displaying and he showed her a beautifully designed bracelet he had created for a friend who had cancer.
“He said he knew God wanted him to give me the bracelet,” she said, and Merritt told him, “This will knock your socks off. I just started my second week of chemo.”
When she got home her hair started coming out all that night. “But there was no way he cold have known I had cancer,” she said.
“I looked like a dog with the mange, so I called my hairdresser and she did a crew cut,” Merritt said. She also trimmed a cancer ribbon design on the back of her head. “It turned into a black tattoo.”
“I tried to have fun, be light-hearted about it,” he said.
“I think God puts people where they need to be when they need to be,” Merritt said. “Kim (Hardin) is in the right job. She’s been there.”
Merritt’s best advice: “Every day get up and get dressed.”
Also, accept help from the nurses and, in her case, the kids.
“I couldn’t have gotten better care in the world,” she said. “The support beats it all.”
Merritt told the group she had had a mammogram a month ago and everything was clear.
She again urged women to do mammograms and self-exams, noting that she discovered her own lump just by feeling, and not a regular exam.
“Get naked and get somebody to look at you. All over,” she said. “You know your body. Don’t be embarrassed. Get it checked.”