THREE RIVERS AREA During a self-examination in 2002, Myrtle Hughes found a lump in her breast.
“I told a close friend, Mary Jones, about it,” Hughes said. “She said to call right now for a mammogram, and I minded her.”
At her appointment the following week, Hughes said she could tell “it was serious” by the body language of her radiologist.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer, but by the end of that year, the disease had gone into remission, not to return.
“My last treatment was on the last day of 2002,” she said. “Cancer is not the death sentence it used to be.”
Last October, Hughes was named one of the Mid-South Division Heroes of Hope for the American Cancer Society. She will share her story with other survivors and caregivers throughout Arkansas. She is one of 20 Heroes of Hope representing Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.
“I speak as both a caregiver and a survivor,” the Higginson resident said. “My walk with cancer began in 1967 with the death of my son, Timmy.”
Timmy was 18 months old when he was diagnosed with acute leukemia.
“We had three children,” Hughes said.
“We learned of Timmy’s cancer on the day our fourth child was to be born.”
She said dealing with her son’s cancer was difficult,but her faith, family and friends helped her cope.
“We spent a lot of time at the clinic,” she said, “but the clinic did not have much to work with” in terms of treatment options.
“Research has come a long way since then. Today that type of cancer has an 85 percent cure rate.”
Hughes said she did not immediately become involved in the American Cancer Society after her son died.
“I have to credit the Lord for giving me strength to get through it,” she said. In 1978, Hughes went to work for Cato in Searcy and retired from that company as a manager in 2007. By that time, she herself was a cancer survivor.
“My first reaction was that it was a death sentence,” Hughes said of hearing her own diagnosis. “That was my very first thought.”
She said she and her sister were driving to Branson, Mo., when she learned of the diagnosis.
“We had planned to go to Branson, and my sister doesn’t drive,” Hughes said.
“Fifteen miles outside of Branson, I called about the results of the mammogram, and the radiologist said that yes, I did have breast cancer. Just as I got to the motel room, I got a call telling me to be in the hospital at 8 a.m. on Monday. My sister and I enjoyed the next day as best we could. I didn’t want to tell my kids. Each one of them called me, and I told them I would talk to them in person.”
On her way home, Hughes said, she saw her pastor in the yard at Higginson Baptist Church.
“I stopped and got out and asked him to remember me in prayer,” she said.
“My doctor told me I would get very aggressive treatment. My family was with me day and night. I had six months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and reconstruction.”
She said one of her biggest fears was paying the bills. When the cancer was first diagnosed, she said, she had been caught without insurance.
“I was diagnosed in June,” she said.
“In August, I got 18 bills from 18 different sources. I said, ‘Lord, how can I take care of this?’ I was able to send each creditor $25 a month. I can’t explain to you how it happened, but I was never late with a bill, and I got them paid off.”
Managing her bills is part of the story Hughes tells people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Since becoming a Hero for Hope, she has spoken at Relay for Life events in Batesville and Jonesboro.
“I’ll talk to anybody or to any group,” Hughes said. “[Cancer] is something that gets a grip on everybody - family, friends and survivors.”
She said the most important thing she does is “encourage people that research has come such a long way over the years.”
Hughes also stressed the importance of early detection. Mammograms and prostate exams can catch cancer before it spreads.
“The American Cancer Society encourages women to do self-examinations,” she said, “and men need to get checked, too. Early detection is one of the most important things.”
She said people who are young may still be at risk.
“More and more people in their 30s and 40s are being diagnosed with cancer,” Hughes said, “but the prognosis for survival today is better.”
She said her battle with cancer strengthened her faith.
“I became a Christian at age 9,” she said. “We’re all human. All of us tend to say, ‘Why me, Lord?’ But I know God has a plan. When I go to bed, I pray, and I have no problem sleeping.”
Hughes said that after her cancer went into remission, she wanted to help other people.
“A lot of times, we meet and talk,” she said.
“When I know of someone who’s just been diagnosed, I go with them to their treatment. I am with them at their surgeries, and I am with the families. When I help others, it helps me stay strong.”
One of the biggest outlets Hughes has found for helping people is her involvement in the White County Relay for Life.
“It’s a big part of my life,” she said.
In 2008, Hughes helped form a Cato survivor team. A year later, that team grew to include caregivers.
“Cancer touches everyone, but anybody who wants to can just be on our team to support survivors and caregivers,” Hughes said.
“We are like a family - we share; we pray for people who’ve found out they have cancer.”
The Relay for Life is sponsored by the American Cancer Society and will be held June 1-2 at the Searcy Events Center. Fundraisers are held in support of Relay for Life. Hughes said the goal of this year’s event is to raise $13,000.
A baseball tournament, a penny drive and a garage sale are just three of the fund raising activities slated for this spring. This year’s theme is “Wipeout,” Hughes said.
She has so many activities now that she said her children have trouble keeping up with her.
“I’ve joined the Rotary Club,” she said. “I do water aerobics; I’ve gone on mission trips. I tell people I’ll have to go back to work to get some rest.”
For more information about the American Cancer Society, call (800) 227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or email@example.com.
getting to know Myrtle Hughes
Birth date: Sept. 11, 1942
Biggest influence: My relationship with the Lord and my parents, Luther and Jessie Bunker
First job: Van Atkins Department Store in Searcy during my junior and senior years at Searcy High School
Family: Four children, Veneicia Price, Paul Hughes, Timmy Hughes and Marla Cook; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren
Something I would like to accomplish in life but haven’t yet: A memorial in honor of our son, Timmy, and I would like to make another trip to the Holy Land.
Most people don’t know that: I was very shy as a child.
Favorite comfort food: Chocolate
Hobbies: Genealogy, stamp collecting and flowers