Staff Photo: Erin Evans . Newborn resident Barbara Schemmel proudly wears her Relay for Life T-shirt. Schemmel is a bus driver for the Newton County School System. Her Relay for Life team is called Big Wheel Drivers.
COVINGTON -- Barbara Schemmel knows what it really means to fight like a girl. That's her motto.
It means continuing to get out of bed and face each day with purpose and passion, after her first, second and third cancer diagnosis, after watching both her parents die from the disease, after hearing the most dreaded words for any cancer patient: stage four.
First diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, Schemmel had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
"There were no lymph nodes involved, and I thought I was fine," she said.
But less than five years later, in February 2009, she discovered a cancerous lump. This time, the cancer had spread to 19 lymph nodes. Schemmel had a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery. Though there were complications - including a staph infection and a severe radiation wound that required surgery -- eventually, she began to feel better.
"I thought everything was good. I was feeling great," she said. But in July, Schemmel learned her cancer had metastasized to her spine and was at stage four. Because her cancer is estrogen receptor positive, meaning that estrogen causes the cancer to grow, Schemmel is on an estrogen blocker, as well as a bone strengthener, and, at the time of her interview, was awaiting word on whether she would have to undergo chemotherapy again.
"I actually have found out that I'm stronger than I ever thought I'd be," she said. "Me lying down and crying and feeling sorry for myself isn't going to help anybody."
That said, Schemmel has stopped researching metastatic cancer on the Internet -- "I can't think about it or I'll want to curl up in a ball and I'll want to stay in bed and die."
Schemmel lost her mother to breast cancer just days ago. It was her second bout with the disease.
"My mother had it and it didn't come back for 20 years. I guess I was kind of in denial. She went 20 years before she got it again. I had it in the back of my head that I could get it again but I thought it would be longer than not even five years," Schemmel said.
Schemmel's father also had breast cancer and later died of lung cancer. She worries about her 21-year-old daughter, who plans to start having mammograms at age 30.
Schemmel is just 47; her first diagnosis came at 41. She said she's fighting the odds, though she can't help but notice the horrified looks on people's faces when she tells them she has stage 4 cancer.
"They think of it as a death sentence, but it's not. Years ago, yes, it was. People are living longer and longer because of the treatments," she said.
Schemmel wears pink every day, and sometimes a T-shirt that says "Fight Like a Girl," a phrase that has become a kind of battle cry for women battling breast cancer, and also the title of Schemmel's favorite country song. She participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure two years in a row, and she's got a Relay for Life team called Big Wheel Drivers, so named because members are school bus drivers, like Schemmel, who works for the Newton County School System.
She makes it through the tough times by relying on her faith and her family, especially her grandson's laughter. And she's still laughing, too. She laughs at this quote from Mother Teresa: "God only gives us as much as we can handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much."
"I always have hope," Schemmel said. "I believe God's going to get me through it. If it's his choice for me to go early, that's what I've got to do. I try not to dwell on it. I can't let it define my life."