Two Ellis County women became best friends through each other's battles with breast cancer
Cancer has often been described as the “lonely disease.” Despite the constant support of family and friends, it is a disease that infests and demoralizes. It is silent. It attacks the unsuspecting.
But it can be beat.
How lonely must that moment be when one is told he or she has cancer? No matter how crowded or empty the room, it is often reported to be the singularly most surreal moment in a lifetime.
This can’t be real.
This can’t be true.
In the case of Goldie Alexander, she simply chose not to believe it. Even as she went through aggressive treatment, she was convinced the diagnosis was wrong. Fourteen years later, her best friend Dorothy Brown was diagnosed, but challenged it. Then, she went shopping.
While both women beat their cancer, they know they are lucky. They have, they know, survived so much more than the lonely disease.
Alexander, a resident of Waxahachie since early childhood, married and raised her four now grown children, whereas Brown moved into Alexander’s neighborhood as an adult, with a family of her own. “Just down the street,” the two became best friends. Alexander worked at the former Kroger grocery chain in Waxahachie, while Brown served the children of Ellis County as a math teacher at the middle school. But it was a loss that truly bonded the two women.
“We had something in common,” Alexander said, speaking of the bond they held prior to their individual cancer diagnosis. “We both lost a husband.”
In 1975, Alexander lost her husband to lung cancer. Three years later, complications from an enlarged heart took Brown’s husband, leaving both women to raise seven children between them. Both women remarried with Alexander’s second marriage ending in divorce and Brown losing a second husband to natural causes in 2004. The women, however, remained close as ever to each other.
It was Alexander who was the first to discover she had cancer.
“I was taking a shower and discovered a lump under my arm. I had gone to the doctor in March or April [of 1999] for mammogram,” but nothing was detected. By June, however, Alexander made the discovery. A biopsy revealed that it was cancer.
“I couldn’t believe it. You never really think it is going to happen to you.”
Belonging to what Alexander describes as a very religious family, “my mom and dad prayed for me, and I never really got scared. I really didn’t think I had it, but I did.”
On July 3, 1999, Alexander had a surgery that involved the removal of her lymph nodes, followed by eight treatments of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. This included the complication of a failed port that delayed, then re-ignited more treatments.
“But I never got sick,” she said.
In fact, when a nurse was sent to her home to make sure Alexander was handling her treatments well enough to eat, the nurse was stunned to find Alexander up and doing household chores.
“The nurse came in and asked if I would go get the patient. I said, ‘I’m the patient,’ and the nurse said, ‘But you’re not sick!’”
Alexander did lose her hair, however.
“That was upsetting,” she said.
Eventually, one of Alexander’s daughters, a hair stylist, suggested cutting it all off so when the rest of the hair fell out, the shock was not so great. By November 1999, she completed her treatments and waited.
In April 2013, something suspicious was spotted on Dorothy Brown’s mammogram, but she was told “to come back in six months,” Brown said. “I went back in October and it had grown. I would definitely have to go back for a biopsy and they found that it was cancerous.”
Her results came when she was home alone.
“When the doctor called she asked if there was anyone at home with me. I told her to go ahead and tell me, that I could take it,” Brown said.
On Nov. 11, 2013, Brown went in for her surgery and recalled how she had announced, “I’m going to beat cancer!”
For Brown, Alexander had been a role model. Brown had watched as her friend triumphantly beat cancer. But every cancer is different, just as every person responds differently to treatment.
In the U.S., one out of every eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. In 2015, it is projected that nearly 240,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and another 60,000 with non-invasive breast cancer. Breast cancer death rates are higher than any other cancers, excluding lung cancer, with risk factors nearly doubling in cancer patients if a first-degree relative, such as a mother, sister, or daughter, was also diagnosed with cancer.
In the case of Alexander, there were no such histories but Brown did have a sister who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. While Caucasian women are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, African-American women are more likely to die of the disease. Both scientists and economists believe a number of factors ranging from financial and medical, having access to insurance and proper medical care, to cultural attitudes can be attributed to the higher death rates among African-American woman.
“I can’t tell you how many friends said they would rather not know,” Alexander said.
“I know. They would say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to know,” Brown chimed in.
But both Brown and Alexander had been diligent in their medical care, annual examinations, and when they had been confronted with the dreaded C-word, they immediately fought back.
Initially, Alexander had refused to believe she actually had the disease and told very few people.
“Why would I tell people,” Alexander laughed. “I didn’t have it! But my youngest daughter called my pastor and told him. He asked me, ‘Why didn’t you tell us? We could always be praying for you and the more prayer, the more power!’ Well, after that, I started telling everyone, and then my daughter started asking me, ‘Why are you telling everyone?”
At this, both Alexandra and Brown laugh.
“I didn’t tell anyone, either,” Brown said. “In fact, a lot of people still may not know. I don’t know why. I just didn’t want anyone looking at me strangely.”
As far as Brown was concerned, she had been diagnosed, treated and prevailed. She did not want any lingering looks of concern or pity.
A private but an immensely proud woman, Brown had already pronounced that she would beat cancer and did not have time for others to feel sorry for her — so much so that following her surgery, she went shopping.
Again, the two friends crack up at the memory of it.
Brown had 10 radiation treatments, going in twice a day for a week. Like Alexander, she never got sick. Having already survived an aneurism and the death of her husband, cancer was not going to beat her.
“I have always been a believer. God has brought me through many things. I would do my treatments in the morning and we would go shopping. My sister said that spending money would be satisfying,” Brown said. “My sister told me this, of course, because she’s a big spender. I’m not but I did spend some money that week!”
For the first couple of days, Brown recalled, her sister would ask if she needed to stop.
“I would reply I was fine and we would keep on shopping,” she aid.
They would stop only to eat, and return for another treatment in the afternoon. On the third day, however, her sister had to fly home. So Brown’s son took over, though with far less zeal for the “shop ‘til you drop” concept.
Through denial or a passive aggressive need to shop, it was their humor that carried them through such a difficult time.
“Attitude is so important,” Brown said.
This would be the same woman, however, when her name was called for surgery in the hospital on that fateful Nov. 11 called back, “Dorothy Brown? Oh, she’s gone! She left.”
As quickly as they laugh, the two friends regard the word – cancer.
“It’s not just a word. When I read about it, when I hear about it,” Brown said, “I grieve. I grieve when I know people don’t survive it. It hurts my heart that people don’t make it and it makes it hard sometimes for me to talk to people because I did. I attend a breast cancer support group here in Waxahachie and try to encourage people. We all have a set time to go but, maybe, I think, if someone could get words of encouragement, it could help them so much more.”
In fact, Brown frequents Texas Oncology in Dallas to donate hand-knitted caps to cancer patients who have (or will) lose their hair.
“Just because someone has cancer, it doesn’t mean death,” Alexander said, adding that with the diagnosis comes an attitude. Addressing the disease head on is the only way to beat it.
“It’s been 16 years and I still go in for a doctor’s check-up every two years and my mammogram every year. You have to do self-examinations, too. Don’t be afraid,” she said.
It had been her own self-examination that discovered the cancer, not the doctor.
Much has changed for them since their diagnoses. They both exercise regularly. They eat better. Both are avid readers, focusing on historical and religious materials and have discovered that their faith is unwavering.
“I personally think it changed our friendship,” Brown said. “We’re closer. She is someone I can go to for anything. I tell her my secrets.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We can say anything to each other. She is the best friend you could ever have,” Alexander said.