Michelle Darr is tiny. She claims to be 5 feet tall. I don't think she's even close.
Michelle and I have been friends for about 20 years. She's from Indiana, but is quick to remind me that she is a Midwesterner, not a Yankee. We met at church. We have raised our kids together. She is a teacher. She taught my kids, and I taught hers. We were band parents together and drama parents together.
In other words, we hung out at all the best football fields and high school auditoriums. You know, you really get to know a person when you spend intense nights pouring Cokes and bagging popcorn for a thirsty crowd during half-time or intermission.
Michelle is one of the kindest and sweetest people I have ever known. She is also one of the toughest. Michelle is a survivor.
She first felt the lump in the spring of 2008, but she was too busy to see about it until summer. The end of school can be hectic, you know, and she had her own kids to take care of. Besides, a similar lump three years earlier had been benign. She was certain this one would be, too.
Michelle finally got around to having a mammogram on June 8. Just as she expected, the lump was there and the doctors wanted to remove it and have it biopsied - just to be on the safe side. "I'm sure everything will be fine." That's what the doctor told her on July 3, when she finally had the lump removed. And in her heart and in her mind, Michelle was certain that everything would be fine, too.
But everything wasn't. She got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach when her doctor called her on the phone - from the site of her July 4 week vacation - a few days later. She was all alone when she got the news that she had cancer - and her first feeling was that of shock.
But Michelle Darr is a fighter. She didn't panic. She didn't allow herself to freak out. She called a friend, a fellow teacher who is also a breast cancer survivor, for advice and commiseration, and then she set her course of action. July 15 was the date of her official diagnosis. That was the date she saw the oncologist.
Michelle's already-steadfast faith in God was made even stronger by her breast cancer ordeal. A friend from church was a nurse at the office of the oncologist Michelle chose and offered her much-needed solace at a time when Michelle was, by her own admission, scared to death.
She endured 18 weeks of chemotherapy. Her doctor told her that her hair would fall out three weeks after the chemo started. She and her daughter, Lindsey, and her son, Zachary, went wig shopping on Lindsey's 21st birthday. The hair began to come out in clumps three days later, on the exact day the doctor had predicted. Michelle was ready, just as she was ready for the nausea and fatigue that accompanied the treatments and just as she was ready for the additional treatments she took every three weeks, long after the chemo ended.
She was also ready for the bilateral mastectomy she had to endure in February and the reconstructive surgery that left her unable to raise her arms above her head without months of physical therapy.
She never lost her sense of humor, however, and now owns a T-shirt that proclaims, "Yes, they are fake. My real ones tried to kill me."
I asked her what kept her going during her long ordeal. She quickly answered, "God." And then she told me about her strong network of friends - people who were always there to take her to treatments and to talk to her and be there for her. Once she lost her hair she often went out without her wig, wearing a hat or cap to cover her head, and she was amazed at the number of total strangers, most of whom were women and many of whom had battled breast cancer themselves, who would come up to her in the grocery store and other public places and offer encouragement and share their own stories.
After about 15 months of treatments, surgery, fear and prayers - lots and lots of prayers - my friend, Michelle Darr, has been officially declared cancer-free. She is a survivor.
I told you she is tough. She is tough enough to have shared her story with me and tough enough to allow me to share it with you.
Ladies, Michelle doesn't want you ignore those lumps and she wants you to get regular mammograms. And guys, she wants all of us to support breast cancer research until a cure is found. Let's make breast cancer a distant memory. Michelle survived. About 40,000 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer this year will not.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.