Tracie Brewster, Survivor
Similar to many women, then-48-year-old Tracie Brewster’s journey started with an unfamiliar, unsettling “small bump” in her chest.
“It wasn’t hurting or uncomfortable at the time, but it was there. Like a small pebble or marble — a hard and small knot — that wasn’t supposed to be there,” Brewster recalled. Right before her birthday in May 2016, the “knot” bothered Brewster enough to have it checked, and then she was subsequently sent for a biopsy, when the discovery — and worst fears — were confirmed.
Stage 3 breast cancer, and I remember crying the whole next day afterwards, but then, I called my dad and decided I wasn’t going to cry no more. It was time to put on my big girl pants and try to beat it.
Brewster had worked at Wadley for 20 years, and in the purchasing office since 2012. Almost immediately, Brewster enjoyed support and encouragement from those around her in the Wadley community. “It was great, and I was blessed. Everyone did everything they could to help me through. There was a fund-raiser, but more importantly, there was always an outpouring of love and support,” Brewster said.
In fact, one of the biggest things that helped Brewster was simply working, which she did almost every day throughout the process.
(Working) was really very good therapy for me; it kept me busy, kept me occupied, and kept me engaged with people. I didn’t have time to feel pity; there was too much work to be done.
Brewster also credited her father, Larry Reed, her sister, Vicky Mabry, her daughter Brittany Brewster and granddaughter Elizabeth Brewster, for their support as well as her church family. “It wasn’t easy. I lost my appetite during the chemotherapy and then there was the radiation treatments, which both happened after the lumpectomy,” she said. Brewster recalled losing her hair and her eyebrows, but she said:
I didn’t lose my faith. This was all in the good Lord’s hands, and it was His will to pull me through.
The lumpectomy was successful in removing the “small knot,” and Brewster didn’t need the full mastectomy to recover. Today, she was been working and living as normal, and over the past weekend, was looking forward to a game of dominoes with her family and friends. “That’s what we do most Fridays; we sit around and talk, or we have a family game of dominos,” she said.
With the exception of some maintenance medication she must take over the next five years, Brewster has regularly attended her job at Wadley, does her shopping, and enjoys life at her home in Emmett. One thing that Brewster does do differently now is tell her story of survival, and freely offer her encouragement and support to others fighting cancer.
I am happy to put myself out there, if it can help someone else. My goal is helping others in overcoming this.
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Shannon Vicker Gerth, Survivor
Wadley X-Ray technician Shannon Vickers Gerth of Hope was surprised 10 months ago to learn she had breast cancer at age 31. (Rick Kennedy photo)
Breast cancer, and surviving, knows no age limit
30-year-old in recovery phase
Although Shannon Vickers Gerth’s journey with survival has many similar elements — check-up, discovery, surgery and recovery — to many patients, her story points to an emerging trend, which is the incidence of breast cancer among younger women.
Gerth, an X-Ray technician at Wadley, was only 31-years-old when her condition was discovered at the start of 2018, finding out literally days after her birthday, and she has spent much of this year in treatment and a pending recovery, marking a relatively quick snapshot of time.
“I went in for my yearly exam on January 24; I was talking with my doctor, and he said ‘Yes, we need to get this checked out, right now.'” Gerth recalls, “And he got me in for a mammogram and ultra-sound that same day.”
“They then referred me to come back for a biopsy on January 26, and then, he called me on January 29; that’s when I found out,” Gerth, who lives in Hope with her family, said.
Gerth’s reaction was one of total surprise, but also one of initial confusion as to what to do next.
It was a complete surprise, and me working here, I know we start mammograms at age 40; I never would have thought that me, at the time, 30-years old, would need a mammogram. It is just not the typical scenario.
“Then, I was like where do I go? What do I do? What’s the next step in this process?” she said, “My Gynecologist helped me and said ‘I’ll refer you to where ever you want to go.'”
After consulting with various family, friends and work associates, Gerth was directed to Little Rock, where she sought treatment at one of the state’s premier and well-known institutions, UAMS.
From there, Gerth, as a younger woman, went almost immediately into eight rounds of Chemotherapy, and then underwent a bilateral mastectomy, where she had both breasts removed.
All within this calendar year.
“Yes sir, this has been going on since January 29,” Gerth said, “I’ve seen the doctors since the first part of February, when I met with the surgeons. From there, I met with the Oncologist and we got all these tests set up,” she said.
“So, through February and March, I had these various tests, and then in March, I had started the Chemotherapy for 16 weeks. I had surgery this past July, and the first part of August, I started radiation. I had 36 treatments, going five days a week, and I just finished that two weeks ago,” she said.
“I am still in recovery phase, but it has gone very well; I’m feeling pretty good right now,” she said, “I am gaining more and more energy every day.”
With Halloween around the corner, Gerth went so far to say, “I am looking forward to carving pumpkins with my eight-year daughter, Madsyn.”
Gerth said her love for her daughter inspired her to fight cancer and get over it.
I had to be there for her; I had to fight this, get over it, and be there for her. I want to see her graduate, see her get married; I want to do all this. I’m not going to let cancer be the determinate factor in her life.
“Of course, my husband, Nathan, has been very supportive; my mom, she’s been with me. My sister has went with me,” she said.
Gerth tells an ironic side story about her sister, Melissa Phillips, who was pregnant at the time of the UAMS trip to Litte Rock.
“She went with me to a chemo treatment, and her water broke on the way to Little Rock. So, instead of me going for my treatment, I ended up taking her, and she had twins at UAMS,” Gerth said.
“It has been a crazy year, no doubt,” she said, “And, we made for her on time.”
Gerth also credits and thanks her co-workers at Wadley for their support.
“Wadley, all my co-workers here have been beyond amazing; calling, texting, encouraging. Family, distant family, cousins, everyone has really been very supportive,” she said.
At the “Girls Night Out” event sponsored by Wadley on October 30, a custom door reef will be auctioned off in Gerth’s honor, to help her raise funds for her continued recovery.
Gerth, who is in recovery mode, stands next to a custom reef made in her honor to be raffled off during the “Girl’s Night Out” event at Wadley on October 30. (Rick Kennedy photo)
“And through this whole thing, I’ve tried to be as normal as I can; I’ve continued working.
In my fight, I was determined not to let this run me down. I pretty much worked through every thing; there were days I didn’t feel well, but I hung in there as best I could,
“I had a friend in May that got married in Florida, and I went to her wedding. I was halfway through the chemo at the time. I’ve tried to do the best I could, and tried not to let it get me down,” she said.
As with many chemo patients, Gerth was losing her hair along the way, but she turned that into positive.
“It was falling out really bad, so back in March, I let my daughter cut my hair. I am going to let her be a part of this, so I let her cut my hair. How many seven-year-olds can say ‘I cut my Momma’s hair?’ and we kind of made it fun,” she said.
On the upswing now, and growing her hair back, Gerth offers this advice to others:
If you suspect anything, feel anything, suspect a mass, have it checked out. Mine ended up being the size of a golf ball. It doesn’t matter if you are 30-years old, go and have it checked out, and don’t take any chances.
Local Relay for Life looks to continue legacy
The Hempstead County Relay for Life, which just recently finished another successful Celebrity Waiter event, will seek to continue its local legacy of cancer fundraising and events into 2019.
Over 20 years now and running, the Hempstead RFL has not lost any of its local charm or mission; many Relay for Life organizations have faded off or consolidated in rural Arkansas and Louisiana, but the Hempstead Relay for Life has continued to persevere and survive.
Long identified in Hope as the go-to local leader of Relay for Life and fundraising has been Jessie Lewis, who announced earlier in the fall that she was scaling back her activities, although she did appear at the most recent RFL event, the Celebrity Waiter, dressed as Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods with her longtime cohort, Racheal Cuellar, who was Mary Poppins.
The people of Hope have always been generous and the businesses, too. They have always rallied together for a good cause, and certainly finding a cure for cancer is something to rally around
Lewis is well-known in Hempstead County for her efforts in leading Relay for Life in Hempstead County for 12 of the past 20 years. For the past six years, Lewis has either chaired or co-chaired the Hempstead County Relay for Life, and she has won numerous accolades from the organization including Heart of Relay Award for Hempstead County 2011, Relay for Life Volunteer of the Year Award for Mid-South Division 2012-2013, and Relay for Life Most Valuable Player Award 2013.
Lewis has long credited volunteers and people in the Hope community for keeping the Relay for Life going strong over two decades now.
Every day there is someone diagnosed with cancer; there is always someone who knows someone, a relative, a friend, who has been affected by cancer
Nationally, the Relay for Life has acted as a major fundraising event in communities across America for the American Cancer Society, which provides various services and outreach programs in all 50 states, including Arkansas.
ACS has a regional office based in Little Rock, and for years, ACS has maintained 24/7 call center that is available to provide information about free services and put patients in touch with community outreach programs.
In records from 2017, the Arkansas ACS provided services to residents in both Hempstead and Nevada county residents, including 25 persons in Hempstead County that involved securing 20 personal health managers, 1 wig, 1 transportation assistance, and 1 reach to recovery visit. For Nevada County residents, 22 individuals were given free hotel nights while they were traveling for treatment, 11 people received cancer info packets and personal health manager kits, and 3 wigs were given to patients.
According to public information from ACS, approximately 75-percent of resources go to cancer research, patient support, prevention information and education and detection and treatment. The remaining 25-percent of resources are spent of management compensation, and general infrastructure, and fundraising expenses.
A breakdown of fund allocations include $151 million spent on Cancer Research, $348 million spent on Patient Support, $123 million spent on Prevention Information and Education, and $87 million spent on Detection and Treatment.
The ACS notes that it has recorded a 23-percent decline in cancer death rates since 1991, when many of the Relay for Life organizations began emerging.
In 2016, UAMS in Arkansas was awarded a $1.6 million ACS Research Grant with studies to be engaged for thyroid cancer and skin cancer.
Omar Ishaq, M.D., bring imagery expertise to Texarkana Region
Omar Ishaq, M.D., grew up in a small farming town in Chipley, Florida, home to approximately 3,500 people and only two stop-lights. Dr. Ishaq still remembers touring the town’s first grocery store, a Super Walmart, when he was in the fourth grade.
As one can imagine, a town with nothing more than a grocery store probably didn’t have the easiest access to health care. And, when Dr. Ishaq’s little brother was diagnosed with leukemia at the young age of five, the options for treatment in a town that small were minimal — the only hope for survival was found many hours away.
Now, 25 years later as a board certified Radiation Oncologist, Dr. Ishaq provides advanced cancer care for Texarkana and its surrounding rural communities with the W. Temple Webber Cancer Center at CHRISTUS St. Michael Health System, Texarkana area’s only comprehensive cancer program.
Dr. Ishaq was exceptionally smart in school. The mother of the valedictorian of his high school was given a rose and Dr. Ishaq’s mother would always assure him he was going to get her the rose. Needless to say, he didn’t disappoint his mother and even went on to be only one of eight students in the state of Florida to receive the coveted John V. Lombardi Scholarship to the University of Florida. One of six brothers and sisters in a single parent home, he and his family survived on very little means, at times threatened with destitution.
“Receiving the Lombardi scholarship changed my life,” shared Dr. Ishaq. “They took a poor kid like me and gave me an opportunity to travel abroad and learn from extremely brilliant people.”
Dr. Ishaq continued to shine and was accepted into John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, after graduating from the University of Florida. While there, his heart to serve and mind to problem-solve led Dr. Ishaq to start a nonprofit organization which helped provide a comprehensive system of housing, education and health care for the homeless population in the Baltimore metro area.
During an internship, I noticed individuals in poverty would come in, receive treatment and would then go right back onto the streets without the appropriate knowledge or tools to care for themselves. I wanted to provide these individuals the opportunity to improve their circumstances; similar to the chances I was given.
With a passion for photography, Dr. Ishaq found himself drawn to radiology because of the imaging. However, Dr. Ishaq’s mentor in college, seeing his passion for building relationships with people, encouraged him to look into radiation oncology. It didn’t take long for Dr. Ishaq to realize this was exactly the specialty he’d been looking for.
“I fell in love with radiation oncology,” he said. “I am happiest when dealing directly with patients and being the person to help eliminate their fears. I am able to take the time to listen, provide comfort and guidance to patients through a very scary journey.”
After completing his residency with the New York University Medical Center, Dr. Ishaq felt led to travel back to his southern roots and bring even more of the latest research and advances to Texarkana.
Here, I can make a difference. I chose Texarkana because no one should feel like they have to travel for hours or move away from their home to get the highest quality cancer care.