VENUS — There’s no good time to find out you’ve got cancer, but for those diagnosed at the holidays it can be even more devastating.

One local woman recently discovered she’ll battle cancer through Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year and beyond.

“At the end of July I started having chest pain and thought it might just be acid reflux, but nothing I took for reflux was helping,” 40-year-old Melody Winters of Venus said.

Aug. 1, Melody went to the doctor because of chest pain and her physician suggested Melody’s coughing may have bruised her chest cavity. Neither the steroid prednisone nor antibiotics lessened the pain.

“I went back to the doctor about the chest pain and the doctor did an echocardiogram and a stress test, but all the results came back normal,” Melody said.

A week later, still with worsening chest pain, doctors X-rayed Melody’s lungs, found them clear, and sent her home with more medicine.

Another week passed and Melody’s breathing became labored. Doctors decided she might have bronchial pneumonia or was experiencing asthma.

“I was given a breathing treatment, a prescription for an inhaler and medicine to give myself home breathing treatments,” Melody said. “All of this did seem to help for a short time.”

By Sept. 20, Melody knew something more was wrong — “I felt so sick, I thought I was dying,” she said. Sept. 21, she realized that might actually be true.

“I went to the doctor Friday and told her she had to do something, that I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I received more steroids and antibiotics, but the doctor also agreed to a CT scan,” Melody said.

The CT technician told Melody to expect the results sometime the following Monday or Tuesday. Melody had barely gotten home from having her latest prescription filled, however, when her doctor called.

“She said to get back to the hospital and check myself in the emergency room,” Melody said. “The next thing I heard was that I probably had lymphoma, and that there was a large tumor keeping air from getting to my lungs.”

Crushing her vene cava artery, the tumor was keeping both oxygen and blood from reaching her lungs, resulting in chest pain and breathing difficulty.

Once admitted, Melody underwent a second CT scan — of her neck and abdomen — that showed Melody had cancer, “all over.”

After a biopsy came back inconclusive, Melody underwent minor surgery to determine what type of cancer she faced. Doctors removed two large lymph node pieces, then sent her home to await the news.

The mass in Melody’s chest grew so rapidly, she was back at the hospital before the pathology report could arrive, and admitted because of her inability to breathe.

The next day, Melody’s fear was given a name.

“They told me I had B-cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” Melody said.

The good news: Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is considered a more treatable form of cancer. The bad news: The mass in Melody’s chest was causing her to suffocate.

“I wasn’t scheduled to start chemotherapy for several more days, but they had to start chemo that day to shrink the mass,” Melody said.

Three large masses - the one in her chest, one in her neck and one on her abdomen - were confirmed as lymphoma, plus Melody learned she had a spot on her liver.

Like most chemotherapy recipients, Melody quickly began losing her hair; perhaps even more difficult for her than some, because she’d worn it long — down to her thighs — her entire life.

“I hadn’t had anything but slight trims to my hair since I was 12. After my first chemo treatment it started falling out and I had my husband cut it to my shoulders,” Melody said.

To rule out additional cancer, Melody underwent two bone marrow biopsies Oct. 18, which both came back negative.

“It was finally a little bit of good news,” Melody said, that was quickly overshadowed by a spinal tap Oct. 22 confirming Melody has cancer in her spinal fluid surrounding her brain.

Headaches caused by the spinal tap resulted in Melody needing a blood patch on her spine to block the pain. With no rest for the weary, Melody then received her second chemo treatment for the lymphoma.

“They wanted to put a shunt in my head to treat the spinal cancer, but they couldn’t because the tumor in my chest was blocking the artery they needed to access for the port. So, they had to put a stent in my chest to open the artery in order for me to breathe,” Melody said.

The mass was blocking so many arteries, the chemo was not reaching it. An attempt to place the pick line under Melody’s arm failed after a blood clot developed two days after it was placed.

By now it was Oct. 29, and Melody wasn’t certain how much her body could take. She insisted doctors find a way to get the chemo to her spine.

“The cancer was just sitting there waiting to eat away at mybody and my brain. They had to do something,” Melody said.

The result was chemo via spinal tap.

By November, Melody began settling into a treatment routine - chemo every three weeks for the chest mass - in order to shrink it enough to enable more spinal treatment. Once doctors can open the ventrical arteries in Melody’s head, she will be given a head shunt to take the chemo to her spine.

Since her pain first began, Melody continued to work and did so throughout diagnosis and treatment in an effort to afford mounting hospital bills. Diminishing strength and increased pain and fatigue led to another unexpected complication.

“I woke up Nov. 9 and I couldn’t move a muscle on the right side of my face. I went to the doctor, who did an MRI on my brain to see if I’d had a stroke,” Melody said.

While it wasn’t a stroke, it was Bells Palsy - temporary facial paralysis brought on by stress. There is no real treatment or cure, and most victims simply have to wait it out while trying to avoid stress.

“That’s a pretty tall order for me right now,” Melody said. Now she faces chemo every three weeks for the lymphoma and twice weekly for the spinal fluid once they can reach it.

In the meantime, Melody and her family are left to give thanks for another Thanksgiving together, as well as ponder where the family goes from here.

“Melody and her husband are not the type of people to expect charity. In fact, they actually participate in charity fundraisers through the rodeo and church to help others in need,” Melody’s mother, Donna Johnson said. “But it is going to become increasingly difficult for her and her family. I think they have helped so many people, they deserve some of that back.”

Melody grew up in Cedar Hill and was employed by Lancaster’s Crystal Chandelier for 14 years.

“A lot of people will remember Melody from the Crystal Chandelier — she’s six feet tall and had the long, long blonde hair. And those who know her think of her as the friendly, vibrant mom who coached soccer and attends her husband’s roping events,” Donna said.

Today Melody lives in Venus, is employed in Dallas, and hopes to work as long as her illness will allow.

“It’s tough for her to work through the pain, but her income helps pay the bills. She doesn’t want to lose her home or her car, and her husband is doing all he can to cover these and other expenses,” Donna said. “Even with insurance, there are already unbelievable medical costs.”

Not to mention providing Christmas for the family - Melody has two sons, Dakota, 14, and Cuyler, 8.

Several community efforts are under way, including a donation drive by Today Newspapers in DeSoto.

“We are managing donations for this family, whether they be Christmas presents for the boys, or things for Melody, or even monetary gifts. We call on our readers who may have faced similar circumstances to think about what would have helped them during that time,” advertising director Kim Petty said. “We encourage others to look into their hearts and give whatever they think is appropriate to help this area family in need.”

A fund has been established at Citizens National Bank in Melody’s name and a benefit roping event is Dec. 8 in Terrell - husband Ben is a professional rodeoer - on behalf of Melody’s family.

Businesses might also consider donations of auction items for the roping event, family counseling sessions or grocery gift cards.

“Many people ask the paper how they can help others this time of year, and most of them are interested in helping those who don’t ordinarily need assistance,” Petty said. “We discovered this family and wanted to share its story to give readers the opportunity to make the holidays a little brighter for the Winters.”

Not sure how long she’ll be able to continue to work, Melody is determined to help keep her family afloat.

“Just like others who face cancer or any illness, we never imagined we’d be in this position. Still, we plan to fight this and do everything we can to maintain our home and our vehicles and the things our children need,” she said.

Perhaps Melody’s own words are the best reminder of what anyone can give others … anytime.

“I don’t deserve anything anymore than the next person. I just know that when I am healthy, I am helpful to others. But I don’t have much in the way of health to offer others right now. I don’t have much more than hope to offer my own family.”

At the holidays, hope may be the best gift of all. If you have some hope to provide Melody and her family, contact Petty at manager@today newspapers.net or call 972-298-4211, ext. 215.

Readers may also call Patty Payne at 214-837-4729 about donations to the Citizens Bank account or Kelly Tuley at 469-337-7699 for roping benefit details.

“This is an opportunity for us to give thanks to God for all our family and friends,” Melody said, averting attention from herself, which friends say is Melody’s usual style. “We also appreciate our Ranchhouse Cowboy Church family and we thank everyone for the help, support and prayers we’ve already received.”

Reprinted with permission from Today Newspapers, copyright 2007.