Breast cancer wasn’t going to dictate how Stephanie Morrow lived her life, nor was it going to define her.

She told the doctors she wanted to have a double mastectomy, long before they told her she would need one. And when she started chemotherapy, she shaved her hair off, long before losing it as a side effect of her treatment.

Surgery and a shaved head were her choice — not cancer’s.

Morrow was ready to do whatever was necessary to beat cancer. She was going to fight. She had to.

As a guidance counselor at Perry Meridian High School, she has offered students an encouraging, optimistic, glass-half-full point of view whenever they visited her with their problems. As a wife and mother, she had to find a way to do that for herself and her family.

“The feeling is that cancer is a death sentence,” she said. “But I don’t know if I really let myself go there, thinking of death. I was just thinking my son can’t not have a mom. I was in fight mode and ready to do whatever it took to beat it.”

Fight mode was fueled by the thought that, if cancer won, it would take away her chance to be there for her son, Ben, and all of his firsts in life, she said.

The only time she cried out of fear and self-pity was the night she was diagnosed. But fighters don’t have time to sulk or be consumed by sadness. After that, she was nothing but optimistic, refusing to feel sorry for herself.

She returned to work less than 24 hours after doctors told her she had breast cancer and it was Stage 3A. Less than a week later, she began chemotherapy and still went to work every day.

A hopeful sign

When she went to the IU Health Simon Cancer Center for her first day of chemo, she was scared, but her mood quickly changed. She was put in room B-9, which she immediately referred to as “benign” — a hopeful sign of things to come, she said.Despite feeling awful from chemo for almost five months of treatment, Morrow and her husband, Derrick Morrow, leaned on each other and kept each other positive throughout the process.Derrick Morrow set the tone with optimism and hope when his wife was diagnosed. He was the one who received the call from doctors that they both needed to come to the office for the results of his wife’s testing.

He knew he would have to be Stephanie’s main source of strength and support, so he prepared for the worst news, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be sad for her or their family. Instead, he focused on being strong for both Ben and Stephanie and optimistic that cancer was not going to take his high school sweetheart.

“I had to be positive for her and keep her hopes up,” Derrick Morrow said. “I might have thought in my mind, ‘What if she isn’t going to be here?’ But you don’t let yourself go there.”

By seeing her husband’s positive attitude, Stephanie Morrow was able to be optimistic and have faith that she would beat cancer.

‘We’ve grown closer’

The couple had been married for nearly 10 years when Stephanie Morrow was diagnosed, and cancer brought them even closer as a family. When chemo made his wife tired and sick, Derrick Morrow made sure everything was business as usual for Ben, keeping him on his normal routine, not allowing his son to fear that his mom was in any type of danger.When it was time for the surgery, Derrick Morrow used the procedure to lift Ben’s spirits, telling him that his mom was sick, but doctors were making her better. Dad was not going to allow his son to be scared or worried.In December 2011, Stephanie Morrow had a double mastectomy. Immediately following her recovery, she began radiation, which lasted nearly eight months, finishing in August 2012.

For nearly a year and a half, cancer consumed much of her time. And it clouded her memory.

An avid Indianapolis Colts fan, Stephanie Morrow couldn’t tell you how the team finished the 2011 season. That year, her favorite team was without its franchise quarterback Peyton Manning and finished 2-14, which she normally would never be able to forget. But this particular year, she couldn’t even tell you who won the Super Bowl, she said.

It’s just one of many memories lost in the blur of cancer treatment.

But she can remember the really important things, like looking at her husband and her son and digging deeper to find even more strength to fight. She couldn’t fathom not being there the day Ben got on the bus for his first day of school or not making it to see her and Derrick Morrow’s next 10 years of marriage.

“I think my fight was different since we have our son; and as a family, we’ve grown closer,” Stephanie Morrow said. “I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened. I’m a better daughter, a better mom and wife because of it. I try not to let cancer define me, but I would definitely say it’s changed me.”

Her cancer is in full remission, and she proudly calls herself a survivor.

‘I can do anything’

But cancer did leave a mark.Stephanie and Derrick Morrow had always planned to give Ben siblings, but because of cancer, she can’t have more children. The hormones associated with pregnancy put her at risk for the cancer to come back, she said.“My ability to give him siblings is the one thing cancer did take,” she said. “Ben is such a blessing because I had him when I had him, but it’s sad for us because he’s the only kid we will ever have. We always saw ourselves having a couple of kids and I struggled with that, but just in the last year I’ve finally begun to accept it.”

Ben knows his mom had breast cancer, but Stephanie Morrow eagerly awaits the day she can tell him how much he helped her fight and how he means even more to them now after beating cancer.

Even now, four years later, the couple continue to use cancer as a way to put life into perspective.

Derrick Morrow often remembers life could be worse — he could be without his wife.

Bad days at work, hardships and bad luck are no match for the reality that they get to come home to one another every day and raise their son together for years to come.

“Having been through all of that, I can do anything. I’m definitely winning the mental battle,” she said. “I have a much different outlook when things get tough because I was 31, and I had to face breast cancer and wanting to give up was never an option.”

Stephanie Morrow

Name: Stephanie Morrow

Residence: Center Grove area

Age: 36

Diagnosed: May 2011

Type of Cancer: Breast cancer, Stage 3A

Treatment: Chemotherapy, double mastectomy, radiation

What cancer taught me: Cancer taught me about strength. I just reminded myself when I was in the middle of the fight at least it was me and not my little one. He and my husband made the fight that much more worth it. I had to be stronger for them.

How cancer changed me: I don’t let bad circumstances define me. I don’t always talk about it, unless asked, or if it comes up in conversation. I’ve been able to use my story to share what I’ve been through. I hear stories, and sometimes I’m able to share what I’ve been through. I use my story to help them feel better about their situation.

What would I tell someone just diagnosed with cancer? I would provide comfort and optimism every single time. I’m a really positive person. I think you have to be. I’d just let them know that I’ve been there.

Corey Elliot is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at celliot@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2719.