Thank you for standing by me and lending an ear
For helping me out by just being near.
Thank you for cheering me on or saying a prayer.
For holding me up and showing you care.
Thank you for making me laugh and giving me hope.
For showing support and helping me cope.
Thank you for all that you've done and all that you'll do.
I am so very fortunate to have someone like you!
- Caregiver Poem, written by Linda Nielsen
Every year, the El Dorado Relay For Life choses an honorary survivor to speak during the survivor and caregiver reception held prior to the Relay.
This year, Julie Clements was chosen as honorary survivor.
After being introduced by Relay For Life Chair Jeff Eastman, Clements, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, shared her survival story with those attending Thursday’s reception at Trinity United Methodist Church.
“I want to share with you my journey through cancer from my diagnosis to today, a little more than two years after completing my treatments,” she said. “When I first started going to the doctor for tests, I didn’t tell anyone, except my husband. I didn’t tell my friends or my co-workers or even any other family members. I guess I was kind of in denial. I thought If I didn’t talk about it and no one knew, then it would turn out to be nothing, at least in my mind that made sense at the time. I prayed all the time for the tests to show nothing was wrong. I was only 35, how could I have cancer, but everything I had Googled said that was likely what it was. I couldn’t comprehend it.”
After undergoing a number of tests, Clements’ doctors decided she should have a biopsy. While waiting for the biopsy results, Clements tried not to think about what could happen, but that ended up being all she could think about.
“Well, it wasn’t nothing, and a little after three weeks from my first appointment, I talked to the nurse about the results of the biopsy,” said Clements. “When she told me it was cancer I didn’t even hear the rest of the conversation. I’m sure she gave me all of the details of the test, but I don’t remember. All I know was we were both crying by the time the call was over. I sat in my car outside my office not knowing what to do.”
Page 2 of 5 - As she sat there by herself, Clements felt like her world was ending. She was terrified and didn’t know what to do next. She was surprised to find out she had cancer, since there was no history of breast cancer in her family.
“I called my husband Jim and told him I was coming over to his studio,” said Clements. “I don’t know if he had figured it out yet or not. He knew I was waiting on the results but he didn’t know I had talked to the nurse. I told him ‘It’s cancer.’ That’s about all I could say. He hugged me tight and assured me everything would be OK, that we’d get through it. I wasn’t so sure.”
After telling Jim, she waited a while before telling anyone else. She went back to work the day after hearing the devastating news and tried to focus. She eventually was able to talk about her diagnosis without crying, so she told her co-workers.
“They were all as shocked as I was,” she said. “Since it was October, we were in the middle of a Breast Cancer Awareness project, and when I told my boss I had breast cancer he couldn’t believe it. He told me he would never play poker with me because he didn’t know how I sat through those meetings planning that project without anyone knowing.”
She continued to worry, and wondered why cancer happened to her. She also prayed for a miracle that would take the cancer away. But the cancer was still there when she went back for her next appointment.
“From my diagnosis to the surgery was a whirlwind,” she said. “I met with the surgeon and the plastic surgeon. They cleared their schedules so they had a time they both could do the surgery as quickly as possible.”
After surgery, recovery took longer than Clements thought it should.
“I remember asking the surgeon when I could go back to work, thinking he would say in a day or two,” she said. “Obviously I’d never recovered from surgery before. He told me a week. So when exactly one week was up, I returned to work eager to get back to my normal life. It might have been a little premature. I still clearly remember that day. It was Trick or Treat Down the Street and I was walking around downtown taking pictures, or at least trying to. I was still in a lot of pain.”
During her recovery from surgery, Clements started meeting with an oncologist, who told her what to expect from chemotherapy treatments.
Page 3 of 5 - “Going through chemo and radiation was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” she said. “I was sick, had no energy and just counted down the days until I was through. The first treatment was the worst. The doctor had warned me it would be because of the shock to my system. The second treatment was still hard, but a little better than the first. I wasn’t quite as sick. Then after a few treatments they started to build up in my system and kept getting worse. Slowly I made it past the half-way point and started counting down to the final treatments.”
One of the difficult things about the treatments was losing her hair.
“That was hard, but when it was time, and you know when you reach that point, my husband pulled out the razor and shaved the rest off for me,” she said. “One downside was always having had long hair I didn’t realize how cold it could get in the winter without hair. I did garner quite the hat collection though. I had a few I was wearing, then one time I came to work, my co-workers had a huge box waiting for me. Inside were a variety of hats.”
Throughout her time battling cancer, Clements tried to keep her routine as normal as possible. However, she soon found out she wasn’t able to keep the same schedule she had before.
“I worked before I went to treatments on Wednesdays, but had to take the rest of the day off,” she said. “I also depended on my co-workers to do more of the events that took us out of the office. They gladly stepped in and did everything they could to make my job easier and allow me to sit as much of the time as I could. I’m guessing some of the days I looked better than others because there were a few times over the course of my treatments they kept encouraging me to go home, but I was stubborn.”
Accepting her limitation and depending on those around her wasn’t easy.
“Something as simple as walking the dog down the street became a chore,” she said. “I could only make it a short distance before turning around to return home. Our dog is another story. We adopted Max from the animal shelter in the middle of my treatments. I wasn’t sure it was the best idea at the time. How could I help care for him? But he turned out to be just what I needed, always happy to see me no matter how bad I felt.”
Page 4 of 5 - She had to give up many of her normal activities. Some of those were harder to give up than others. An activity that wasn’t so hard for her to give up was cleaning the house, something Jim began doing all of.
Even though going to work was sometimes a challenge, she wanted to keep some semblance of normal in her life.
“If I had been sitting home, I would have had nothing to do but worry all of the time,” she said. “I did that enough the way it was.”
After finally finishing her eight chemotherapy treatments over 16 weeks, it was time for radiation.
“Finally the chemo was over,” said Clements. “I still had five weeks of radiation every day. It seemed overwhelming at first, but once I got started, other than my sunburn on one side, I didn’t really have any side effects. Or if I did, they were so minor compared to the chemo I didn’t notice.”
Throughout the ordeal, Clements leaned on those around her, as well as her faith in God.
“Without my faith in God I don’t know how I would have made it through,” she said. “There were times I questioned why this was happening to me, but I knew He would see me through this even if I didn’t understand the why. Knowing that He was in control was a comfort to me because I didn’t have the strength to make it through on my own.”
She was also grateful for the support she received from those who brought food for her.
“It started after my surgery, when my co-workers organized a ‘Feed the Clements’ week,” she said. “Jim and I thought it wasn’t necessary, but graciously accepted the food. We soon found out just how helpful that was. Jim spent all of his time waiting on me. Then during one particularly bad week of chemo, our church provided food for us each day. Another huge blessing that came at just the right time when we needed it most.”
She also received cards, flowers and pink gifts.
“I feel like I was shown God’s love through the outpouring of support, well wishes, and prayers I was given by so many people in the community,” she said. “I was, and still am, amazed by it. I had more people than I can count say they were praying for me; and I know of several prayer chains my name was added to and is still on.”
Page 5 of 5 - She also received encouragement from those who shared their cancer survival stories with her.
“I appreciated all of those things because they gave me hope that I would make it through as well and everything would be OK,” she said. “I even had strangers stop me and wish me well. I guess the no hair look is a slight give-away as to what I was going through. Looking back, I still don’t know the ‘why,’ but I can see the positive things that have come out of it.”
Now, she is passing the encouragement along by sharing her own survival story.
“People tell me I’m an encouragement to them, which is kind of strange to me, but I’m happy that I’ve been able to help them,” she said. “I’ve also been told my faith through this was evident, which makes me happy to be able to share that with others. It probably sounds cliche but it also has made me appreciate things more.”
Even though she has been done with treatment for two years, the routine tests still make her nervous.
“I still trust God is taking me on the right path as I wait for that magic number of five years,” she said. “I’m still scared every time I’m waiting for test results, but I also know it’s in God’s hands. I feel great now and I know after this, I can get through anything. Anyone else who is going through this, I would just encourage them to keep up a positive attitude, and don’t hesitate to lean on those around you.”
Clements credits the support she received from others for helping her make it through surgery and treatments.
“I couldn’t have made it through without the support of everyone and especially my husband, Jim, who is here with me tonight,” she said. “Thank you for everything you did for me.”
After speaking, Clements was presented with a quilt made for Relay For Life by El Dorado Correctional Facility inmates, as well as a few other pink gifts.
A few other survivors in attendance then shared their stories, and also thanked Clements for being an encouragement to them.