By STEVEN NALLEY
Jamie Nixon was only 39 when she became the first in her family diagnosed with breast cancer.
She still remembers the date — Oct. 7, 1999 — and she still remembers the shock. Nixon said she didn’t believe cancer could happen to her. For helping her get through the diagnosis and treatment, she said she thanks God first, her husband and family second, and her friends and their prayers next.
“At the time, I also had a 13-year-old daughter,” Nixon said. “The first thing you think is, ‘I’m going to die,’ but you don’t. When you meet your mortality ... it changes your life totally; you change your priorities. The things that were important to you before are not so important then.”
Now, Nixon is one of several participants slated for the Survivor’s Lap and reception at the Oktibbeha County Relay For Life 6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday at the Starkville Sportsplex.
Nixon said she had never attended the relay before her diagnosis, attending for the first time in 2002. Now, as a cancer survivor of more than 12 years, she said the relay is close to her heart.
“What the Relay for Life means to me is a way to give back,” Nixon said. “The Relay for Life is important to me and important to everybody that’s ever had cancer or that knows somebody (who has had cancer).”
Survivor’s Lap organizer Sylvia Templeton, herself a 15-year breast cancer survivor, said the number of survivors attending is not known, but 60 came last year, and there are more in the Starkville area who could attend. The reception features finger foods, refreshments and T-shirts for survivors.
Templeton said she was 50 years old when diagnosed with breast cancer during a general checkup. She took medication for five years and underwent a radical mastectomy followed by reconstruction, she said, but she never had to take chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
“The absolute key is early detection,” Templeton said. “There’s just no way around it. (It is) really imperative that each woman does have her mammogram every year.”
Templeton said she did not recognize the signs of breast cancer immediately, and if she had, she would have addressed them sooner. While the cancer was only at stage one when she was diagnosed, she said she still wanted the surgery.
“I just wanted (the cancer) away from my body,” Templeton said.
Like Nixon, Templeton said she was unfamiliar with the Relay for Life before her diagnosis, and she didn’t know about Starkville’s support networks of fellow cancer survivors.
“After I did become aware of (Relay for Life) and got involved, it just (meant) so much,” Templeton said. “It just gives you an opportunity to be with others that have experienced what you’ve gone through. It’s a chance to ... remember those that were not fortunate enough to beat the disease and celebrate those who have.”
Before her own diagnosis, Templeton said she knew others diagnosed with cancer, including a friend’s husband who was diagnosed with testicular cancer at only about 20 years old.
“He was so young,” Templeton said, “and now here he is in his late 40s, so he’s a survivor.”
Like Templeton, Leota Cardwell said she was the first in her family to have cancer, and she went ahead with a mastectomy at the surgeon’s suggestion.
The cancer was tiny, she said — 3 millimeters wide and 7 millimeters long — but she took no chances. She, too, avoided chemotherapy and radiation, and the cancer has been in remission for 21 years, she said.
“It was sort of scary,” Cardwell said, “but prayer and my husband and my children helped me get through it.”
Cardwell said an injury will prevent her from joining the Survivor’s Lap this year, but she was involved with the Relay for Life several years before her own diagnosis, back when the relay was on the Mississippi State University campus.
“I had so many friends who were battling cancer, and several of them did not make it,” Cardwell said. “Words cannot express what Relay for Life means to me. To meet people who have been through the same things you have and to walk the Survivors Lap the night of the Relay for Life, you can’t describe it.”