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Braselton couple battles cancers together

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Lucretia Pruett, 65 and her husband of 21 years Joe, 68, of Braselton discuss the challenges they have faced in life. Lucretia has been diagnosed with breast cancer and Joe who is currently undergoing chemotherapy is faced with Myelodysplastic Syndromes, a blood cancer.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Lucretia Pruett, 65 and her husband of 21 years Joe, 68, of Braselton discuss the challenges they have faced in life. Lucretia has been diagnosed with breast cancer and Joe who is currently undergoing chemotherapy is faced with Myelodysplastic Syndromes, a blood cancer.

BRASELTON -- Lucretia Pruett was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her first thought was him.

Her first thought, of course, was husband Joe, the man she had fully and lovingly committed to care for two years prior. The retired middle school teacher thought about what would happen if the worst happened.

"I remember thinking, 'Who's going to take care of him if I should die?'" Lucretia Pruett says now, more than three years since that day.

Joe sits in a chair next to her in their comfortable Braselton home. He looks healthy. You would never know he played golf the day before, or that he was 16 months into a "three to 24 months to live" sentence from a doctor.

The blood cancer -- one of the rare myelodyplastic syndromes, or MDS -- has not killed his quick, silly wit.

"Here's a quote for you," he quips. "The family that takes chemo together, stays together."

The Pruetts would know.

When Lucretia -- a 25-year veteran of Gwinnett County middle schools -- was diagnosed on July 2, 2009, cancer was already a long-time (unwanted) guest in their household. Joe was diagnosed with MDS about two years prior and had been battling it with chemotherapy, experimental drugs and patience. Lucretia had long ago dedicated herself to his care.

"I learned that sometimes life is not fair and can be very difficult," Lucretia says. "But my faith has definitely helped me deal with my life's journeys."

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For 12 weeks, the Pruetts had to take care of each other.

Lucretia was allergic to the once-every-three-weeks chemotherapy medicine, so she had to have a different one once a week. At that point Joe, a retired engineer, was getting five straight days of chemo every month. On several occasions their treatments lined up and they sat in the Lawrenceville offices of Suburban Hematology and Dr. Aldemar Montero, taking poison into their veins together.

When Joe had to have his spleen removed (it was absorbing platelets and had swollen to the size of a watermelon), Lucretia sat in the ICU with him for two days. She was bald as can be at the time, and, more than once, nurses wondered aloud which Pruett was the patient.

"She was sitting in the room with me 24 hours a day, you know, looking after me," Joe says.

In total, Lucretia lost all of her hair and had two surgeries, 12 chemotherapy treatments, 33 days of radiation and a full year of infusions. Through it all, she helped get Joe through his own battle, and vice versa.

On the rare occasions she was too sick herself to make it to an appointment with him, she lay in bed praying. She had to "fire" him as a nurse, she jokes, but will admit he played the role of hairdresser pretty well with her wigs.

"We were pretty pitiful," she says with a smile.

The pitifulness -- or strength, depending on how you look at it -- has created a chance for Lucretia to help others.

Now, when she spends long hours at Suburban Hematology waiting out Joe's treatments, she comes armed with scarves (donated by her former church, Snellville United Methodist) and knit hats (contributed by her current church, Hamilton Mill United Methodist).

She finds the women with bald heads, with confused looks on their faces, with worry on their brows. While Joe fights for his life, Lucretia The Survivor tries to brighten the lives of others.

She remembers how she felt when she was hairless; the only photo of her from that period is one of her swimming with dolphins after she decided "life was too damn short."

"They think I'm hawking them and want money," Lucretia says. "I just say, 'No, no, this is a ministry.'"

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Cancer is never a happy occasion. It floats over the lives of those diagnosed on a dramatic black cloud, bringing pain, questions and uncertainty along for the ride.

It does, undoubtedly, change everything. It can, unfettered, ruin things.

But it doesn't have to.

"We wake up in the morning and go, 'Whew, we're breathing. It's a good day,'" Lucretia Pruett says. "It doesn't take much to make us happy."

Over their marriage, the Pruetts have been on something like 27 cruises. They traveled to Europe and Asia and exotic beaches. Joe's condition has kept them domestic lately -- they've been to New Orleans and Highlands, N.C., in recent months -- but they continue to live.

They continue to make every day special, one way or another.

They go to Sonic for happy hour prices on shakes. They spend time with church friends. They make the drive to Gainesville for a bag of boiled peanuts, then plop themselves on a park bench to eat them together.

"As long as I have a quality of life, I'd rather just keep trucking on," Joe says. "None of us know if we're going to be alive tomorrow."