05/29/09 — Tears, but still, hope

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Tears, but still, hope

By Renee Carey
Published in News on May 29, 2009 1:46 PM

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Tonya Matthews, right, speaks at the Relay for Life Survivors Banquet at First Pentecostal Church on Thursday night. With her is her grandmother, Hilda Hill, a 27-year cancer survivor.

It wasn't easy to stand in front of the more than 600 people who packed First Pentecostal Church for the 2009 Relay for Life Survivors Banquet.

But 34-year-old Tonya Matthews stood there anyway -- even when the tears came, even when the story got hard.

She spoke about her battle with cancer with the same courage, smile and faith with which she has fought the disease since her diagnosis in 2008 -- even when the chemotherapy made her sick and she wanted to give up, even when this past February, she learned that the inflamatory breast cancer she thought she might have beaten had spread to her lymph nodes.

She wasn't alone on the stage either. By her side was her grandmother, Hilda Hill -- herself a 27-year cancer survivor, who rushed to her granddaughter's side when the tears came -- just like Tonya said she has been there since she first heard the news.

Hilda said later that when she first heard her granddaughter would be fighting the disease she had beaten, she told her to stay strong.

"Believe in the Lord, have faith and keep going and don't stop," Hilda said she told her.

The 82-year-old should know. She will be at the Relay tonight, remembering her own battle and supporting her granddaughter in hers.

And out in the audience were Tonya's mother, Louise, and sister, Katrina, wiping away tears with love and support in their eyes, just as Tonya says they have since she first got the news that fateful day.

It is the love and support of her family and friends that have kept her going, Tonya said.

She said she knew she had to stay strong -- even when she first heard the word, "cancer."

"Family and friends flooded my home," she said. "I didn't have a lot of time to think about what this really meant."

Yet, even with all the support and love, Tonya said she knew those who loved her were scared.

"I could see the fear in their eyes," she said. "I stayed strong so no one would see me cry. My mom didn't want me to see her cry either, so we took turns running to the bathroom."

Tonya's mother said she has learned a lot from and about her daughter during her battle.

"She's got more spirit and courage and willpower than I ever thought she had," Louise said. "She's a fighter."

But even with all the hope, determination and strength, Tonya said she still went through all the stages -- fear, concern and finally, anger.

"I was mad and confused. I felt like I had been through quite a bit in my life already, so why has this happened to me?" Tonya remembered.

And it would have been easy to stay there in the "why me" category, to feel sad, defeated, worried for a little bit longer, Tonya said, except for one really big motivator -- a little 8-year-old girl named Haley.

"My daughter was way too young to lose her mom, and although she is a tough one, I decided to fight," Tonya said.

Tonya has not been alone in her fight.

She credited her doctor, Jim Atkins, and the staff at Southeastern Medical Oncology Center for the determination to fight and the courage to keep hoping, pushing and believing that she could win her battle.

"They remind me every day that I have something to fight for and that I am not fighting alone," she said.

She adds her Relay for Life team, her co-workers at Southern Bank, family and friends to the cheering squad.

Their journey has not been an easy one, Tonya said.

"Chemo really made me sick and I was off work for a year," she said. "There were days when I was really sick, and I asked God to take me out of my misery. Now, of course, I am glad he didn't. I had the greatest support team a person could ask for. I had the greatest caregiver, my mom. I have the greatest mom in the world. She stayed by my side through the good days and the bad days."

Their faith helped Tonya get through the tough times.

"They pushed me to fight this battle," she said. "No one ever gave me a moment to sit down and give up."

And it has been her faith -- and the blessings she has encountered along the way -- that have helped Tonya keep her sunny outlook, her smile even on the days when she wanted to cry.

In fact, it was a chance meeting with another cancer survivor, a customer at the bank, that gave Tonya the information she needed to push her first doctors to keep looking, keep checking the inflammation in her breast -- to do a mammogram, then an ultrasound, the needle biopsy and finally the surgery that lead to the cancer diagnosis.

Tonya urged those present to follow their instincts, to check themselves regularly, and if they find something they are concerned about, to push their doctors to do the tests that are necessary.

If she had not heard the voice of that survivor in her head, Tonya said, she might have accepted the first diagnosis, and never have met the staff at SMOC, who have helped save her life.

Even now, faced with a new cancer diagnosis, Tonya told those gathered on the eve of the 2009 Relay for Life that she still has hope that one day, there won't be a need for tears.

"With all the support we have in this county and all the money that has been raised, I know a cure is going to be found soon," she said.

She even paused a moment to remember those whose fights are just beginning.

"Remember," she said. "If God brings you to it, he will guide you through it."

And for a woman facing a cancer diagnosis today, for the first time, just like she did more than a year ago, Tonya offers some simple advice -- "to have faith and believe."