Staff Photo: Erin Evans
Breast cancer survivor Phyllis Moreno gets great joy from directing band at Woodlee’s Christian Academy in Newton County, where she also teaches music, science and geography.
COVINGTON — When Conyers resident Phyllis Moreno was diagnosed with breast cancer, her first thought was, "I'm going to die."
She worried about leaving her 12-year-old daughter and husband behind. So, Moreno had the breakdown she deserved. Then, she got on with the business of beating cancer.
"To be real honest, attitude makes a lot of difference in any type of recovery," Moreno said. "Henry Ford said, ‘Whether you think you can or can't, you're right.' I never once thought I couldn't survive all this. It never crossed my mind, other than that brief first moment."
Just 49 when she was diagnosed in September 2005, Moreno had been vigilant about getting mammograms. But it was a persistent pain in her back that clued her in that something wasn't right. Her doctor ordered an ultrasound that revealed a lump that was in the muscle wall, pressed against her rib cage, that had not been detected by the mammogram.
Moreno went to Emory Hospital for treatment, where she was given what would turn out to be a coping mechanism during her ordeal: A book that had everything she needed to know about her diagnosis, treatment options, side effects and numbers for all the medical staff members assigned to her case. Moreno felt empowered at having the information and well prepared for the road ahead. It was a small measure of control, or, at least, awareness.
"I'm a pretty controlling person ... but you can't control cancer. It doesn't say, ‘Let me follow your rules.' If it did none of us would have it. But the book helped with the fear about it and what it would do," she said.
Moreno underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy, surgery to remove the tumor and then 30 days of radiation over the course of about nine months. She lost her hair, her taste buds and her energy, but she was determined to maintain a positive attitude.
"Strong endorphins come with positive thinking," she said. And from a sense of humor, as well.
"During all this, I was president of the PTO at my daughter's school, and I was trying to get parents involved. I asked a man to sign up to be an officer and he took his hat off and said, ‘Look at what happened to me the last time I did that.' He was completely bald. So I took my wig off and said, ‘Me too.' The look on his face was priceless."
But there were very dark times, too. Moreno recalled one day when, too weak to cook, she had lunch at Cracker Barrel and suddenly found herself unable to make it back to her car. She sat on a bench outside the restaurant and luckily, or, she says, miraculously, a paramedic came out, took her pulse and called an ambulance. Once at the hospital, a blood sample was taken and "my blood looked like orange Kool-Aid."
Severely anemic, she was given four liters of blood — the human body holds only five liters.
"I was about to shut down. If that guy hadn't been a paramedic, I might not be here to tell you this," she said.
Moreno thinks she wasn't getting enough protein, and she recommends cancer patients be sure to eat a nutritious diet, even if it means using liquid nutritional supplements like Boost and Ensure. Adding fruit or freezing the drinks like a milkshake will provide variety, she said. She also suggested that anyone who wants to help a cancer patient consider bringing food, as she was often unable to cook. Call the primary caregiver and ask what else you can do, she said.
"People around you don't know how to handle it. They don't want to bother you, but they want to help. People wanted me to call (and tell them how to help) but I had no energy. I was too weak. I needed somebody to come to me. When you're undergoing chemo, you're not always yourself," she said.
"Chemo kills the bad stuff, but also the good stuff," she said. Because chemo knocks out serotonin in the brain, Moreno wound up on an antidepressant to help her mood. She also regularly did puzzles and games to keep her mind active. But there were times when all she could do was watch TV.
"I can probably quote every episode of ‘Little House on the Prairie,'" she said.
The support of loved ones got her through the rough times. Students at her daughter's school held a pink ribbon day in her honor. A student in the home school group she coordinated in Stockbridge cut her hair and sent it to Locks of Love. Her church gave her a homemade prayer blanket. And Moreno always kept an image of a crowd of loving hands holding her up toward heaven.
"That picture of them holding me heavenward all the time, whether in prayer or in action, I think that's what helped me," she said.
Moreno continues to spread hope to other cancer sufferers, taking gift baskets to the Hope Lodge at Emory, which provides free lodging for cancer patients and their families, and to children at Shepherd Center which treats spinal cord injury and disease in Atlanta.
Moreno won't say she's cancer-free. She'll only say it hasn't come back for now, knock on wood. She gets a checkup every six months, and only now does she let herself feel the effect of what happened.
"Now I cry over the fact that I could have died; I didn't then. In the middle of it, I wouldn't allow myself to think about it," she said. "Whatever path you focus on is the path you follow. I was already so sick there was no benefit to (being negative). It was like, I've got to deal with it. I can deal with it and be miserable or deal with it and have fun ... I chose to battle it and be strong for everybody. Now that the fight is over, hopefully — it could come back any time — now, it scares me to death. Could I fight it again? I'm sure I could. I chose not to let it beat me."