No matter how sick she is, Billie Mays knows she has a responsibility three times each day that she can’t shirk.
Buddy, a basset hound-black Labrador mix, will look at her with those dark brown eyes and beg to go outside for a walk.
So Mays will get the leash, leave her Franklin home and take him out for a few blocks. If it’s hot out, she might let him splash around in the ponds around her neighborhood.
Seeing his joy never fails to make her smile.
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“He lets me know that it’s time to go,” she said. “Even when I don’t feel good, he’s there with that companionship.”
Buddy may rely on his owner for his food, water and walks, but Mays has taken much more from her best friend.
Mays has been diagnosed twice with cancer, fighting the disease almost continuously for the past four years. Doctors say that they can’t cure her, only limit her pain and try to keep the tumors from spreading.
The 77-year-old accepts her prognosis but refuses to submit. With her canine companion at her side and her faith in God intact, she has coped with a seemingly hopeless diagnosis.
“I found out I’m a fighter,” she said. “My two brothers call me a little tough old bird.”
Buddy makes a difference
Buddy was a stray that Mays took in while she was living at Sweetwater Lake. He loves to chase deer and is an adept swimmer. He often pulls the leash right out of Mays’ grip and bellyflops into the small ponds around her neighborhood.“The first time he did it, I thought I was going to get in trouble. But they think it’s funny,” she said. “Sometimes, I try to get him out, and he doesn’t want to come out. There’s nothing I can do.”Buddy had been part of the family for only one year when Mays’ husband, Bob, died of cancer in 2006. He was diagnosed when tumors were found in his brain and lungs; and four months later, he was gone.
“After that happened, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out bed except I had to take care of the dog,” she said.
She moved to Franklin to a property that was more manageable for her after her husband died. Their life had been idyllic until Mays was stricken with her own battle with cancer.
She was first diagnosed on March 11, 2011. She had gone to her doctor for her yearly mammogram, a preventive measure that she never skips.
Always the scan had been clear. But this time, doctors wanted her to come back in for a second scan. A second mammogram and an ultrasound eventually uncovered a tumor in her left breast.
Working with Dr. Chace Lottich at Community Breast Care in Greenwood, Mays went through a gantlet of tests — biopsies, blood exams, magnetic resonance imaging. The tumor was Stage 1, but Lottich said it was a particularly difficult one to deal with.
“They said it was the nastiest, most aggressive kind there is,” Mays said.
Lottich recommended a lumpectomy, surgically removing the tumor and the cancerous margins around it, but saving the breast. Mays had the procedure, dealing with an infection that forced her to stay in the hospital for an additional week until antibiotics cleared the bacteria away.
Death seemed inevitable
To ensure that the cancer cells were dead, Mays underwent four rounds of chemotherapy. Her hair fell out, and fatigue left her so tired that she sometimes had trouble lifting her head off her pillow. Thirty-eight days of radiation followed the chemotherapy.When her blood counts reached dangerously low levels, she received blood transfusions. She went through three transfusions during her treatment.“But I made it through that,” she said.
Mays was declared cancer-free in late 2012.
Still, Mays had developed a cough that wouldn’t go away. Considering the months of cancer treatment she had just finished, a cough didn’t concern her.
Her family doctor couldn’t determine the problem, so Mays went to see Dr. Robert Daly, a pulmonologist with Community Health Network’s Center for Respiratory and Sleep Medicine. He ordered a PET scan — which makes a full body scan and illuminates cancerous areas.
The cancer had metastasized. Her lungs, lymph nodes and left kidneys were riddled with cancerous growths. On Aug. 8, 2012, Mays learned that she had Stage 4 cancer, for which there was no cure.
“All they could do was chemo. The doctor hoped I had a year to two years,” she said.
When she was diagnosed the second time, it seemed that death was inevitable and soon. Mays’ daughters planned an outing with their mother to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They shopped, ate at fancy seafood restaurants and enjoyed their time along the seashore.
“They didn’t think that we’d have very long, so they wanted to get one more trip with me,” she said.
Continuing to battle
But Mays has remained strong, taking advantage of experimental chemotherapies and any option available to stay alive. Her oncologist, Dr. Madelaine Sgroi, has tailored a try-everything treatment plan.Mays receives regular chemotherapy then goes in for a scan looking for changes in the cancer. Some of the chemicals have worked for short times, then a new combination is tried.
The most recent drug causes her fingernails to become weak and fall off, but it has proved to be effective against the cancer. Mays’ last scan showed that the tumors had not spread.
Some days, she couldn’t raise her head off the pillow. She sleeps 10 hours or more a night.
“I’ve got a shirt that says ‘Cancer Sucks,’ and it does,” Mays said.
Scarves and hats fill two drawers in her house, since her hair has fallen out again. When the temperature isn’t too warm, she wears a stylish amber-brown wig.
Her faith is central in her life, and she credits prayer with helping her cope with a seemingly hopeless diagnosis.
“God has been great to me,” she said. “How people deal with it without God, I don’t understand it.”
Sgroi can’t prescribe anything for the draining fatigue that results from each chemo round. Steroids help with the nausea.
“The steroids work, in that I don’t get sick. But sometimes, I don’t even want to look at food. I have to eat just a little bit, then wait and eat a little bit more,” she said.
She’ll likely have to get chemotherapy for the rest of her life, otherwise the cancer would take over. She recognizes that her options are narrowing, as combinations of chemo stop working.
Mays has come to terms with the fact that she won’t win this battle, but she’s fighting as much as she can.
Her main concern is for her friend, Buddy. Who would walk him each day, play with him in the yard and lay around the house with him?
“It would be very hard for him,” she said. “He wouldn’t know what to do.”
Who: Billie Mays
When diagnosed: March 11, 2011
Type of cancer: Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma in her left breast; the cancer eventually spread to her kidneys and lungs
Treatment: Lumpectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy and 38 days of radiation; now receiving chemotherapy
How cancer changed me: You want to live. Life is more precious. It’s like everything is brighter, you want to just grab it.
What cancer taught me: Some things that people are upset about, it means nothing. Why would you be upset about that?
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: Have faith. How people deal with this without God, I don’t understand it.