Breast cancer survivor leans on the positives

Published on Saturday, 26 April 2014 23:29 - Written by Betty Waters

Julia Epperson dealt with her cancer diagnosis with laughter and positiveness. She invited friends.

“We had a party … a little wake … we toasted that I would be losing my right breast. I know it sounds funny, but that’s what we did,” Ms. Epperson said, laughing and her eyes twinkling.

Friends and family worked at “trying to make everything as normal as possible,” she said. Their outlook, she added, “was we’ll take care of it and go on about our business.”

A speaker at the second annual cancer conference Saturday at UT Health Northeast, Ms. Epperson spoke about positive thinking when going through cancer.

The conference theme was “Celebrate Life” and it focused on cancer survivorship.

“We thought cancer survivorship would be an important topic because the number of cancer survivors in East Texas as well as the rest of the United States is growing rapidly,” Dr. Edward R. Sauter, director of the cancer treatment and prevention center at UT Health Northeast, said.

“In the old days, most people died of cancer. That’s no longer true,” he said. “More than half of the people with a diagnosis of cancer live a long life and die of something else. So the percentage of people dying from cancer relative to the number of people diagnosed with cancer continues to decrease, which means more and more people are cancer survivors.”

There are 70,000 cancer survivors in East Texas, Dr. Sauter estimated.

For Ms. Epperson, her bout with cancer began in September 2010 when she found a lump in her right breast while living in Florida. Tests showed it was cancer and she had a mastectomy followed by about four months of chemotherapy.

Now a Tyler resident, Ms. Epperson recalled that the news was surprising, but she said it should not have been because of her family history with different cancers.

“We kept our house as normal as we could make it. We laughed about it, we cried about it and that’s about all you can do. It’s just a part of life,” she said.

“It changes your life. … I think I’m better now as a person having had the cancer than I was before because before, I was busy with work, earning money, buying things and doing like other Americans. But once you get the cancer diagnosis, you have to really look at what’s important in your life. Your family, your friends, your quality of life is more important than the physical things that you own.”

Earlier she had been laid off from her job in the building department in the county where she lived in Florida. At first, she viewed her job loss as devastating, but it gave her time to take care of the cancer, time to take care of her family and time to reevaluate what’s really important, Ms. Epperson said.

“You take it (cancer) as just something that happened and you just go with it,” she said. “If you dwell on it, you are going to be miserable; you are going to be depressed. You have to have a positive outlook.”

Saying she feels fantastic now, Ms. Epperson said, “It’s like I was reborn and this is the best part of my life, not the worst part of my life. I already did the cancer. If it comes up again, you just have to go with it.”

She advised other cancer patients, “As long as you can smile, laugh about something, tell somebody you love them, you’ve pretty much got it made.”

Ms. Epperson said, “When you first get diagnosed, it’s gloom and doom. You kind of think this could be the end. You have to sit down and think about it and say it’s not the end, it’s the beginning and this is part of the process.”

She encouraged, “Keep a very positive attitude about it even on the days you can’t hold your head up and you are sick as a dog. Just say I know I can make it, I’ll be able to do it. I know I can and just have something or someone that is making you pull through, even if it’s the inside person telling you that you can do it, you can make it.”

Ms. Epperson acknowledged it is “a sad occasion,” but repeatedly urged cancer survivors to have laughter in their life and that they need positiveness.

“Otherwise, you are going to end up being depressed and alone sitting there worried about it,” she said. “There’s always something good that turns out about bad situations, even if you can’t see at the moment it happens.”