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Chaffin: After cancer, live fruitfully and passionately

A week before she died of breast cancer, my mother was fretting about not feeling well enough to make jelly from the ripe fruit on the two plum trees in her backyard.
She didn’t know she had only a few days to live. Neither did we. Even her surgeon was surprised when she died on June 28, 1985 ó a day after he tried to run tests to see if the cancer had spread.
Looking back, I realize a better daughter would have offered to make the plum jelly. In my defense, my mother believed in a one-woman kitchen, and I was happy to stay out. I preferred to hang out in the tobacco fields and garden with my father and brothers.
Still, it would be a few years before I would forgive myself for not even trying. It was only when I decided to make jelly from the plums on those same trees that I was able to let go of my regret.
My plum jelly, by the way, won a red, second-place ribbon at the Center Fair in Davie County that year. I should, of course, mention that there were only two entries in the plum jelly category and that one of the judges pointed out that mine didn’t really qualify because the jelly wasn’t clear.
I couldn’t have cared less. I had made the plum jelly as a tribute to my mother.
A couple of years after that, around the time I was diagnosed with a fibrosarcoma in my left shoulder, a black fungus began to grow on the trees.
Though Rowan Cooperative Extension agent Darrell Blackwelder has since told me that it was called black knotó a fairly common fungus on fruit trees ó my father called it cancer.
I watched the trees nervously after that as the fungus took over more and more of their limbs. My father, seeming to sense my fear, pruned the trees every year so it wasn’t so noticeable.
The thing that amazed me about the trees was that even as the fungus grew, they continued to bear plums just as big and sweet as ever.
I thought about those trees last year ó trees my brother eventually cut down even though Darrell said the fungus wouldn’t kill them ó as I underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.
It wasn’t the black fungus that I recalled. It was the fruit that continued to grow in spite of it.
I think that’s the best way to live life after cancer. Live fruitfully and passionately.
Friday night, nine months after my last chemotherapy treatment, I joined hundreds of Rowan County cancer survivors walking the opening lap at Relay for Life.
While celebrating my remission and hope for many more years of life, I couldn’t help but think about a young woman who was not there.
Michelle Hosch, who I wrote about three years ago after her May 2005 breast cancer diagnosis, died Tuesday morning. Michelle was only 4 when her mother died of breast cancer, and she leaves behind a son, Christopher, who is only 5.
She is also survived by her husband, Dwayne, and their 13-year-old daughter, Beth.
Michelle, who lived at 1061 Foxbrook Place, had her first mammogram at age 18 and followups every year after that. She had just had one when she talked to a doctor who used injections of the HCG human growth hormone to help people lose weight quickly.
Written information advised against anyone with a history of cancer taking the injections. Though her mammogram had been clear, Michelle told the doctor about her mother and her mother’s brother, who had undergone a double mastectomy after a recurrence of breast cancer, and asked if she should take the injections.
He assured her that she’d be fine, that the warning was only intended for people previously diagnosed.
Michelle lost 50 pounds in three months. A year later, she found a lump under her right arm and was diagnosed with Stage 3-C invasive breast cancer.
Though there was no conclusive evidence, Michelle believed strongly that the HCG hormone injections may have caused the tumor that failed to show up on the mammogram (they’re only 80 percent accurate) to grow faster.
Because some people continue to take the hormone for weight loss, I think Michelle’s concern bears repeating.
I kept up with her after the story, but lost touch with her and everyone else last year when I went through my own battle with breast cancer.
When Michelle’s mother-in-law, Wanda, called Tuesday to tell me what had happened, I cried for the woman who had become my friend. Michelle was 33.
Friday night, I walked the Survivors Lap at Relay for Life in her memory and in memory of her mother and my mother and all the mothers and daughters and fathers and sons who have lost their lives to cancer. Each step represented a promise that they will never be forgotten and a silent prayer sent up for a cure.
As I walked around the track, I vowed to live a life that matters.
A life that is good.
Filled with family and friends.
Adventurous.
Purposeful.
And sweet.
Like plum jelly.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or kchaffin@salisburypost.com.

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