‘Good with the bad’: Former co-workers bond over cancer diagnoses

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 15, 2019

SALISBURY — Laura Medford’s motto is simple, but it’s one she’s come to rely on increasingly in recent years.

“You just have to take the good with the bad,” Medford said. “It’s about what you make of it.”

And when the “bad” comes, it’s helpful to have someone who’s been through the same difficult times, she said.

“They know where you’ve been, and they know where you’re going,” she said. “They understand because they’ve been there.”

That’s part of the reason the friendship between Medford, who lives in Davie County, and Cindy Webb, from Woodleaf, has become so strong. Medford currently works at Partners in Learning at Catawba College. Webb was a longtime employee, with her time overlapping Medford’s. Both women have a family history of cancer and are breast cancer survivors. And Webb shares Medford’s mentality — “you just have to take it in stride.”

So, now that both women are facing a second bout with cancer — Medford in her bones and Webb in her lungs — they’re taking it in stride together.

“Unless you’ve been through something, you don’t really have a lot in common with other people. They can be your friends, but unless you share that commonality, it’s hard to get close on that subject,” Webb said. “You can say, ‘How are you doing today?’ but with me and Laura, we can say, ‘How are you really doing?’ … I do love her.”

Breast cancer

Webb has worked in early childhood education all her life. Her 21 years at Partners in Learning, a child care and family resource center, preceded time working at a church preschool and at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

Her passion for early childhood education came from an experience in elementary school. A fellow student named Twyla Hall was oxygen-deprived, Webb said, and in need of a one-on-one student helper. Webb became that helper from kindergarten to the time she was 16 and battled an illness of her own.

In 2011, while working at Partners in Learning, Webb was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because her mother had two mastectomies — both breasts removed but in two different procedures — Webb said she was “religious” about going to appointments and was able to catch a lump in her breast very early. And she opted to have a double mastectomy to avoid having to undergo two procedures.

“When I was told that I had breast cancer, I didn’t want to go through what my mother did, where they take one and several years later take the other,” Webb said. “Then, once I found out Laura had it, it was like I took a little sister under my wing to help her go through it. I knew what she was going through.”

Webb didn’t have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, but that wasn’t the case for Medford, who was diagnosed about one year later — while Webb was in remission. Dealing with an aggressive form of breast cancer, Medford estimated she went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 39 radiation treatments.

Still, tips from Webb made a difference during treatment, including making sure to bring a friend or family member for support.

“Sometimes, you just zone out when someone is saying something you don’t want to hear, and you need that second set of ears,” Medford said.

And, as someone who enjoys being around children, Medford said being out of the classroom after the first diagnosis was particularly difficult.

“Even when I was doing really strong chemo, the first time I was diagnosed, I would still get up and come to work,” she said. “Everybody asked, ‘Why are you here?’ But they don’t understand.

“I would get in a room and the children would make me forget what I was going through. It would make my day, with them laughing and me playing with them. That’s what helped me get through my days, stepping into a child’s world.”

She found help from friends, co-workers and families of children at Partners in Learning encouraging, too. Co-workers donated their vacation time and sick days. And families made donations, too. That took some of the financial pressure off Medford.

Second diagnosis

Both women beat breast cancer and were clear for several years before Medford learned that the disease had returned — this time in her bones. Webb had a cancer-free party in 2013 for Medford at her house, inviting friends and family. And the second time Medford was diagnosed with cancer, late last year, she just wanted to get straight to the fix.

“When the doctor called and said, ‘Laura, you need to come to the office,’ I was like, ‘No, I’m not spending $20 to go up there for you to tell me what you can tell me over the phone,’” Medford recalled.

News from the doctor was that cancer had been found on her spine. That came after Medford had suffered from pain she thought might be from playing on the floor with kids, bending over to help kids wash their hands and helping them do other tasks. An initial suggestion from the doctor was to take pain medicine for a few months.

“But it got so bad that I couldn’t walk,” Medford said.

A CAT scan revealed lesions on her spine, but there were lesions elsewhere, too: on her hips, ribs and on top of her brain.

Doctors have told Medford that her bone cancer diagnosis isn’t related to her breast cancer from years earlier. But she’s back on chemotherapy treatment again, receiving it every 21 days. Medford says she’s on a maintenance plan and that she’s focused this time on trying to provide advice and encouragement for Webb.

She’s also written a story of her journey called “A Pocket Full of Junk” and makes “junk journals.” The journals feature a different story on every page and are made of a collection of different paper and materials. The cover of one of the junk journals, for example, is part of a box of coffee pods for a Keurig machine.

Webb, meanwhile, is still in the middle of her battle with Stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer. She was diagnosed in June. Doctors, Webb said, haven’t found a cause and she said pain and spells of vomiting have made this latest battle with cancer particularly draining. Last week, she made a trip to the emergency room for some of those side effects.

“And that just kind of drags me down,” she said. “The hard part is just trying to figure out what the cause is, but I don’t sit here and worry about the lung cancer. They say it’s incurable, but God is going to tell me when it’s up, not this cancer.”

Webb says she finds joy in simple moments with Medford, whether it’s her friend bringing her a meal, a good conversation, reading through the stories Medford has written or attending meetings of the Red Hat Society, a women’s social group. When she’s feeling well, Webb says, she enjoys hiking and going to the mountains. And when she’s not feeling well, she tries to work on her family’s genealogy, having already traced her family tree back to the 1700s and “the first immigrant that came over.”

What comes next isn’t certain for Medford or Webb, but they’re taking life one day at a time together.

“I think someone who’s going through this should find either a small support group or friend, somebody that you can talk to,” Webb said. “I’m not big on being in a huge support group-type situation. I’m a one-on-one-type person, and I think that’s why it works. We enjoy each other’s company.”

Contact editor Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4248.