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Pink journeys: Support system invaluable for survivor

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Lonna Handley was devastated when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, but her immediate concern wasn’t for herself.

She worried instead about her family and how the news would affect them.

“I don’t know if I was in a state of shock or what, but my first reaction was to protect everybody around me,” said Handley, 58.

Her husband, Ron, was at the doctor’s office with her when the news was delivered. He said it was like being kicked in the stomach.

“He was much more visibly upset than I was,” Handley recalled. “I just constantly kept saying ‘it’s going to be all right, we’re going to get through this.’ ”

Then they had to break the news to Handley’s mother, Hazel Hildebrand, and son, Joe Monfort. Handley and Montfort have always been close and she agonized over how she would tell him his mother had cancer.

She ended up taking two big gulps of peppermint schnapps to help calm her nerves, then blurted it out.

There were also talks with stepchildren and grandchildren. It was one of the most difficult times in her year-long battle with cancer, Handley said.

Each of Handley’s family members dealt with her illness differently. Her mother, she said, was stoic until Handley shaved her head after her second chemo treatment. Her hair was falling out and her hairdresser, Edie Sansbury, had already helped her pick out a wig.

Handley was surprisingly unmoved as the pale skin of her scalp was revealed. But her mother cried. Hildebrand said that was the moment her daughter’s illness became real for her.

Handley was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2009 after a mammogram, but the news didn’t come as a surprise. She discovered a lump in her breast the previous December. She hoped it would go away, but a part of her suspected that wouldn’t be the case.

Handley went through chemotherapy and had a lumpectomy, then started radiation. The chemo wasn’t as awful as she had expected. It made her tired more than sick. Yet she couldn’t imagine having gotten through it without her family.

While initially, she was trying to take care of them, they had the same idea. They couldn’t beat the cancer for her, so they did what they could, holding her hand, making sure she never went to a doctor’s appointment alone and taking on the bulk of the workload at Pawleys Pantry, which the Handleys own, and The Mole Hole, which they co-own.

“Ron wanted to do everything himself,” Handley said. “He wanted to cook and clean and work the stores. He didn’t want me to do anything but take care of myself.”

While she appreciated his efforts, she said she quickly decided they were both better off if she kept doing the cooking. And she wasn’t willing to stop working entirely either. Work helped her keep her mind off what she was going through, so she came in when she could. But her family and friends made sure she went home as soon as she started to look tired.

“She’s a pretty hard-driven person,” Ron said. “My biggest job was trying to keep her from wearing herself down.”

It was a trial, Hildebrand said. “She couldn’t stand it, but it’s all you can do. You support them in everything and if they want to talk, you let them talk.”

Throughout Handley’s battle with cancer, she said family and friends showed amazing caring and generosity. When Handley decided to put in flower beds on either side of her driveway as a reward after each of her chemo treatments, she said Rose Riordan, who ran Plantation Services at the time, volunteered to help her with the project, offering advice on which flowers to put in and ordering them for her.

Pete Aubrey volunteered to take care of her yard while she was sick. Every time she went to a treatment, she said, he was out there working.

Others brought food or enlisted friends who had battled cancer to talk to Handley and offer advice or a listening ear.

“Everybody wanted to do something to help,” she said.

Handley said she can’t explain how much that support meant to her, or how much it helped her in her journey.

“I couldn’t have done it by myself,” she said. “No one should have to.”

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