October 15, 2011 7:54:00 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Terry Brewer doesn't cry when she discusses her personal battle with breast cancer, but when she begins to talk about her daughter's fight, the tears fall freely.
Last October, Brewer participated in a three-day, 60-mile breast cancer awareness walk in her daughter's honor. Next weekend, she will walk in her daughter's memory.
Nikkie Hayes passed away April 17, just two months after Brewer learned that her own breast cancer had returned after nine years of remission.
In comparison with the journey Brewer has undergone over the past decade, 60 miles is easy. She is buoyed by the knowledge that proceeds from the "Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure" walk will be used for breast cancer research, education and community health programs. Plus, she will have her husband, friends and a legion of supporters by her side.
It helps, she says. Every letter, every phone call, every kind word helps ease her sorrow and solidify her purpose.
Brewer was always conscientious about breast health.
In her 20s, she began performing monthly self-exams, familiarizing herself with every nuance of her body's contours. In her 40s, she began having yearly mammograms. She never felt anything unusual, and her mammograms were always clear.
In January 2002, while on a trip with her husband, Dale Brewer, she performed her usual self-exam. There, beneath her trembling fingers, she felt something that wasn't right.
The next morning, she checked again. The lump was still there. She immediately called Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle and scheduled a mammogram.
The news wasn't good. She had an advanced stage of triple-negative breast cancer, an extremely aggressive form of cancer that is resistant to hormonal therapy and carries a high rate of recurrence.
Brewer wasn't daunted. She intended to beat cancer.
Her hairdresser, Mary Bickerstaff of Profiles hair salon in Columbus, decided to do something that both touched and amazed her. Bickerstaff told her that in her honor, she was going to participate in something Brewer had never heard of -- a three-day breast cancer awareness walk sponsored by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.
She was too sick to join her friend, but she appreciated the gesture and set her sights on reaching her own goal: Survival.
Four rounds of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation later, she was declared cancer-free. She had survived. Cancer was a part of her past.
'Lost in a storm'
Except it wasn't.
In December 2009, her daughter, Nikkie Hayes, was living in Dothan, Ala., when she went to the doctor to have some lymph nodes removed from her neck. She had been having trouble for a while, and a biopsy of the lumps revealed the cause -- she also had breast cancer.
Genetic testing revealed that Brewer carried what is known as a BRCA1-mutation, a hereditary, genetic abnormality that gave her daughter a high risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
This is what haunts her, Brewer says. She blames herself.
"I would give my life if I had known five years ago about genetic testing," she says. "I passed (breast cancer) to my child."
Hayes underwent 33 rounds of radiation, going to work every day as an office manager for Dothan Powersports, a job she loved.
In December 2010, she called her mother and made a confession: Though she had always been good with numbers, she was struggling with her accounting duties. She wasn't thinking clearly. Something was wrong.
Tests revealed the cancer had metastasized to her brain. She was given less than six months to live.
"She was real brave, and she wouldn't hear anything negative," Brewer recalls. "In her mind, she was going to beat it."
For Brewer, it was like suddenly being lost in a very dark storm.
On April 16, she got an early mother's day present; Hayes gave her a letter she had never mailed, along with a Susan G. Komen Pandora bracelet and charm.
The next morning, she passed away. She was only 37.
Two months before Hayes' death, during another self-exam, Brewer had discovered a pecan-sized lump. Her own cancer had returned.
Lost in grief over her daughter's death, she traveled back and forth to chemotherapy and radiation, but she never lost her upbeat spirit. She made it her mission to stay focused and stay positive, not only for herself, but also for others undergoing treatment.
On Fridays, she baked "goodies" and brought them for the nurses and patients to enjoy, forming an impromptu weekly party.
She began speaking about breast cancer awareness to garden clubs and other groups. She re-read letters from family and friends. She focused on the happy memories.
And she kept walking.
Last year, she participated in the "Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure" breast cancer awareness walk, which is held in different cities around the nation and draws thousands of participants. The experience was so uplifting that she knew she had to do it again this year.
The walk will be held Oct. 21-23 in Atlanta, with participants beginning at Stone Mountain Park and winding their way throughout Atlanta's suburbs to end up at Turner Field. They will walk an average of 20 miles per day, stopping to camp each night.
Brewer said after the first night of last year's walk, she was exhausted and temperatures were chilly, but she couldn't stop smiling as she fell asleep in her pink tent. All along the walk, she saw people with signs and posters encouraging the walkers on their journey.
There were costumes and applause, cheers and ... pickle juice.
"It helps with leg cramps," she says, laughing.
There was a truck festooned with bras of every color and size draped around the truck bed. There was even a dog bearing a sign that said: "I am a breast cancer survivor. I've had three mastectomies."
Most of all, there was the camaraderie and personal stories people shared along the walk and in camp that night.
"This year, my heart's going to be broken," she says. "But we're walking for a cure for someone else."
Each walker is required to raise $2,300 in order to participate, and Brewer is still trying to gather the funds to meet her goal, but she said if all else fails, she plans to pay it herself. Either way, the money will go toward research and breast cancer education, so it's for a good cause.
"I always tell (people), 'It's not if it's going to be someone in your family -- it's when,'" she says. "Everybody deserves a life."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.