SURVIVOR’S STORY: ‘You have to get on with it’

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Sonya Graham, on her last day of radiation in 2015. Sonya is a breast cancer survivor. (Courtesy photo)

Behind her wicked sense of humor and her refusal to take herself too seriously, Sonya Graham is a magnificent woman of strength, perseverance and inspiration. Her story is one of tragedy, triumph, twists, turns, miracles, hope and the importance of love and laughter.

Sonya grew up in Mississippi. At the age of 2, she was in a tragic shooting accident. Her lung was pierced, and she was left with a permanent spinal cord injury. The T4 spinal cord injury left her with no feeling from her chest down.

She explained, “I was so young when the accident happened, so being in a wheelchair was my normal. My mom would tell me that I could feel sorry for myself or be depressed for one day and that’s it. That became my way throughout life.”

Sonya describes her childhood as a paraplegic as, “easier in some ways and harder in others.” She says she was popular and had many good friends, her mother being her number one fan. 

After high school Sonya attended Mississippi State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in child development and psychology. In 1997, Sonya, at the urging of friends and family, entered the Miss Wheelchair Mississippi pageant and she won!

She laughs as she remembers the experience, “I am so not a pageant person, but I went to Denver to compete for Miss Wheelchair USA. I was terrible! My mother had always thought everything I did was wonderful. I knew things were bad when all she could say was ‘Sonya, you are like me. We shouldn’t really do public speaking.’ Yeah, pageants are just not my thing!” 

Sonya continued her education at the University of Illinois earning her master’s degree in social work. She interned at the VA Hospital in Chicago. She transferred to the VA in Memphis and then to the VA in Birmingham in 2001 where she still works today. 

In 1998 she met her husband Les and they married in August 2001. For the next several years, Les and Sonya worked hard commuting to Birmingham each day from Good Hope. Both were active in animal welfare causes and rescue. Their new home was built with the  accommodations of their beloved dogs in mind. Life was good. 

In 2009, the Grahams were thrilled to learn they were expecting. Sonya says it was not planned.

“I was with a friend and we were helping with a group of foster puppies. One of the puppies pooped and in rescue, we don’t even flinch. That day, I got sick and threw up. Her first thought was to ask if I was pregnant. Well, I went to the doctor and yep, 12 weeks pregnant!” 

The pregnancy was easy and trouble-free until Sonya approached the 33rd week.

“I woke up and knew I felt really bad and something was wrong. My blood pressure had skyrocketed, and  Gabby’s blood pressure was dangerously low. The doctor said they had to get the baby or one of us was going to die or both.” 

Gabby Graham was delivered by cesarean section on June 1, 2010. She lacked the ability to regulate her body temperature so baby Gabby stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UAB Hospital in Birmingham for two weeks. Sonya’s blood pressure failed to improve, and she was unable to see.

“Les rushed me to the ER and a CT Scan revealed I had had a stroke. I couldn’t see, and although I knew it was bad, I knew we would be OK.”

After almost two weeks, Sonya’s vision and blood pressure improved and she was discharged. Gabby was discharged a couple of days later and Les, Sonya and Gabby were finally able to enjoy being home. There was one small problem, though. Les was scheduled for a knee surgery that could not be rescheduled.

Sonya said, “Bless my mom! She lived with us for three months and took care of everyone. Not sure what we would have done without her.” 

As Sonya approached 40, she scheduled a mammogram and the results came back clean. But a couple of months later, in the shower, she felt a lump. She says she was concerned but thought about the mammogram just a couple of months prior.

She made the important choice to consult her physician. 

Sonya recalls the Friday-night phone call from her doctor: “Gabby was in the bathtub when I got the call and heard the words ‘You have cancer.’ Everything after that was like an out-of-body experience. I was trying to write down everything they were saying, but I wasn’t getting it all. The word ‘cancer’ is so scary. It is the scariest thing I have ever ever, ever, EVER heard. Being shot was easy compared to this.”

Sonya was terrified as her anxiety flooded her mind with worst-case scenarios. An estimated 41,000 women die each year from breast cancer.

Sonya described her reaction, “I was going to die! What was going to happen to my daughter? I was frantic. What do I do to prepare? My biggest fear was Gabby would lose me and Les. Being a social worker, I’ve seen so many kids go into foster care. Many are wonderful homes, but it’s still different.”

She continued, “My anxiety had me focused on advanced directives. I didn’t have a will. I worried about insurance. Do I want to be buried or cremated? Will Les and Gabby have enough? I began working on the end. I gathered greeting cards with different messages for different occasions and milestones in Gabby’s life. I knew I had to lighten my load and start doing whatever I had to do to increase my chances of being here longer for her.”

Said Sonya, “I began organizing photos and videos into folders for Les and Gabby. I gave Les all my passwords, so he could get to everything if he needed. I created an email for Gabby to access when she got older with messages from me about how proud she makes me and how much I love her.” 

Sonya was diagnosed with ER-positive, PR- positive, or invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). The doctors described it as “low-grade,” which was good news. While it is a type of breast cancer that spreads, it is not as aggressive as other types. The other good news, the ER+, PR + means the cancer is a hormone-fueled cancer rather than genetically-fueled. Genetic testing revealed that no cancer gene was passed to Sonya’s daughter. 

A week after the diagnosis Sonya and Les began meeting with a team of oncologists and nurses assigned to her case. Les was there writing everything down. Sonya recalls “losing it” on that first visit.

“It all became so real when a lady in the waiting room started telling about wigs and other things I might need to know about,” she said. “By the time I got to the doctor I was sobbing and telling him how I can’t die! I have a 4-year-old daughter at home! The doctor told me then that I was going to be fine.”

There were some challenges due to Sonya’s spinal injury. A lumpectomy was scheduled, and she was out of work for two weeks. Not being able to lift her body and her chair prolonged her recovery from surgery. Tests revealed that the surgery did not get all the cancer, so she underwent a second surgery. She missed several more weeks of work.

Sonya’s doctors recommended radiation treatments but had concerns about chemotherapy.

Sonya explained, “The doctors didn’t think the benefit was worth how hard it might be for my body. Paraplegics often have kidney and bladder problems. My lung also has scar tissue, so we opted for radiation only.”

She continued, “I was able to work my job at the VA and go next door to UAB for radiation on my lunch breaks. Every time I went into UAB Hospital I couldn’t help but be reminded that it was the same building Gabby was born. I received treatments five days a week for five weeks. The radiation didn’t hurt while I was receiving it, but later it would burn. It burned my skin from the inside out!”

Despite the genuine fear when hearing she had cancer, Sonya said, “I was lucky. I was fortunate that my cancer was treatable and had not spread to lymph nodes. I take medication that reduces the amounts of estrogen and progesterone in my body. I feel lucky because so many women have aggressive types of breast cancer with a much lower success rate than the kind I had.”

Sonya is cancer-free now but says that the fear and anxiety persist.

“When something doesn’t feel right or hurts, your mind thinks cancer. You automatically go there! 

Sonya’s advice:

SELF EXAMS! Don’t solely rely on mammograms. They can miss things, especially in women with bigger breasts.

“I knew a doctor who had a clean mammogram. She went jogging, and while adjusting her sports bra, found a lump.” 

DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF!

“I used to worry about unimportant things. Is so-and-so mad at me? Oh no, someone said something about me on Facebook….who cares?

“I have prioritized my life, putting my family at the top. I started doing stuff I like! Reading books and planting flowers! I plant them in my backyard for me instead of the front yard to impress everyone else. I’m growing food in my backyard. I’m not good at it all but I like trying,” she smiled.

Les, Sonya and Gabby took a celebration trip to Mexico Beach, Florida in 2016. Being a Mississippi State grad, she thoughtfully gave her doctor (an Auburn Fan) a cowbell with “Thank you” on one side and a bulldog on the other.

Sonya said she hopes her story will help others remember the wisdom of her mother: “You can feel sorry for yourself for one day, but then you have to get on with it.” 

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