Brenda Hurst knows cancer well.
Her mother had breast, bone and cervical cancer. Her father had bladder cancer. A sister died of lung and brain cancer. Her father-in-law died of multiple myeloma.
And both she and her husband, Mike, have had skin cancer.
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Brenda, a Greenwood resident, has been diligent with her own prevention and treatment of the disease. So when she noticed a red spot on her arm, a bump on her shoulder and a red spot on her hip in May, she went to the dermatologist.
The shoulder bump was fine. So was the red spot on her arm.
The red spot on her hip — the one she was least concerned about — came back positive for squamous cell skin cancer.
“We each have to take responsibility for how we are medically treated … Otherwise cancer would win, and I don’t think cancer should win at anything. I take that personally.” —Brenda Hurst
Her next step: treatment. She was referred to a plastic surgeon, who prescribed chemotherapy cream to rub on the spot and told her to come in for another biopsy after spreading the lotion on the area.
That advice didn’t sit well with Hurst. She knew she had cancer and she didn’t need another biopsy to confirm that, she said.
She thought about how people handle other issues, such as an order being messed up at a restaurant or their car not being properly fixed. They speak up, and she knew she needed to do the same for her own health care.
“If I hadn’t spoken up, I would still be sitting here with cancer,” she said.
She called her dermatologist and explained she wasn’t comfortable with the plastic surgeon’s treatment of her cancer. She wanted another referral to a cancer surgeon.
A few weeks later, she was cancer free.
Her oncology surgeon performed the Mohs surgery where surgeons go in and scrape the cancerous cells and presumably healthy cells out of the skin and send the cells to biopsy instantly. Hurst sat in the waiting room with an open wound in her hip for the biopsy results.
The cells around her cancer came back cancer free, so she was able to get stitched up. If they had not, a surgeon would have dug deeper, layer by layer to root out all of the cancer, she said.
Hearing that they got all the cancer was one of the best days of her life, she said.
“Those were the best words to hear, that they got it all,” she said.
And cancer didn’t bankrupt her. Her co-pay for the surgery was about $500 and wasn’t enough to make a major financial impact on her life. She is disputing the consultation bill from the plastic surgeon.
Her story is a good one, and she knows that isn’t always the case.
“This is the best cancer outcome I have experienced personally,” she said.
Worst day of her life
Hurst has spent decades caring for patients that had worse outcomes. Most have been family, making her wonder what the genetic connection might be. And cancer has spanned almost her entire life, starting with helping care for her mother in her early 20s, to outliving several siblings who died in the last decade. Two died within a year of each other.When she was 20, just a few years after graduating Greenwood Community High School, her mom, Rosie, was diagnosed with cervical cancer and breast cancer.
Soon her kidneys started failing. With a 2-year-old toddler and a second child on the way, Hurst took a class to learn how to give her mother eight-hour dialysis treatments at home every other day.
Taking care of her mother became almost a full-time job, said Mike Hurst, Brenda’s husband.
He pitched in where he could, cooking meals, mowing lawns at both homes so Rosie could get the dialysis.
Decades later, he wondered how his small family got through that tiring time, he said.
“You can see the pain, you can see the fatigue, people being drawn from one thing to another,” Mike Hurst said.
Brenda continued the treatments on her mother for months until Rosie decided it was enough.
Rosie was in pain. Her doctor told her that the dialysis treatments were doing their job to flush out the toxins in her blood from failing kidneys, but they were also flushing out the pain relief.
Rosie decided to stop dialysis, which meant she would die.
The doctors told Hurst her mother had seven to 10 days to live after stopping dialysis. Rosie died two weeks later.
The day Hurst heard her mother chose to die rather than live in pain was the worst day of her life, she said. Her mother was her best friend.
“I wanted to die,” she said.
But she picked up her life for her two little boys, Chris and Corey, ages 2 and 6 weeks at the time of Rosie’s death,
She was 23 and not mature enough to handle losing her mother, she said.
“It was more than I could handle, but you rise to the occasion when you have two little boys,” she said.
Everyone has their fight
The pain of losing her mom would come and go.Two years after her death, she was in a department store and heard a young woman call her mother over to look at a dress. And she remembered when her mother would pick out ball gowns for Hurst to wear to her husband’s Marine Corps dances.
The realization that her mother would never again do that put her in tears in the middle of a department store.
“It took two years to soak that in,” she said.
Decades later, she lost her sister and then her best friend, Cindy, who fought breast cancer for a decade.
Brenda Hurst always dropped everything to go and help a relative through the disease, said Chris Hurst, Brenda’s son.
“My mom is a very generous person; if someone needs her, she just drops and goes,” Chris Hurst said. “She was always traveling to help a family member.”
Diane, Hurst’s sister, was living in Florida when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. The cancer soon went to her brain, where several cancerous lesions were eating away at her personality and her life. A trip to Florida was planned so Hurst could help her children take care of her. Diane’s neurologist called Hurst and said her sister only had about a month left to live.
But the sister she was with in the last weeks of her life wasn’t her sister, she said.
Diane would talk and not make sense and went days without sleep. The normally happy sister was ordering hospice employees out of her home and insisting on scrubbing the kitchen floors in the middle of the night.
“She and I had always been so close, she was so loving and kind,” she said.
Four years later, she still misses having her sister around, being able to pick up the phone and tell her about her day or how she and her husband are.
“I lost my mom and then her,” she said.
Cancer didn’t stay away.
Six months later, her brother, Johnny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which was almost certainly a death sentence, Hurst said.
Johnny had the Whipple procedure done to treat the cancer, and Hurst rearranged her part-time job to make sure she could drive Johnny to the VA hospital for chemotherapy appointments. About six months later, he died.
Cancer affects just about everyone, Hurst said.
“You would have to be living under a rock to not know someone,” she said.
And everyone has their fight, she said.
Then, her family got good news for the first time in their decades of fighting cancer.
Hurst’s brother, Landon Jr., had a 3-inch malignant tumor removed from his back. Surgery got it all and the news lifted Hurst, she said.
“It was the first time they said, I believe we got it all,” she said. “I thought maybe the tides had turned, between him and me, they got it all.”
Responsibility to your body
Counting up all the surgeries, appointments and hospitals and treatment centers the family has been to is nearly impossible, Mike Hurst said.“You just lose track, it is so much,” he said.
And sometimes the couple is just waiting for the next phone call, email or meeting that will tell them that another family member has cancer.
“You have so much in your family, you just hold your breath all the time,” he said. “You hold your breath literally.”
Now, they make sure to be proactive with her own health.
Mike rides a motorcycle and is diligent about covering up and protecting himself from the sun after going through his own surgeries to treat skin cancer.
“We were young people just like anyone else, you go to the beach and you are in the sun,” he said. “You wonder, later in life, will you pay for that?”
The key to beating and treating cancer is knowing your own body, she said.
Decades of seeing cancer ravage her family member’s bodies has taught her that. Doctors know what is going on, but common sense for people who know their own body should prevail, Brenda Hurst said.
“We each have to be responsible for our own medical treatment,” she said. “You can use your common sense to know when something isn’t right.”
She could easily fall into the pit of thinking everything she had was cancer. But she has chosen not to do that.
Instead, she takes care of her health. She never misses a check-up with anyone, including the dentist, the dermatologist or getting a mammogram.
Keeping regular check-ups is the key to not letting hypochondria win, she said.
“We each have to take responsibility for how we are medically treated,” she said.
“Otherwise cancer would win, and I don’t think cancer should win at anything. I take that personally.”
Name: Brenda Hurst
City of residence: Greenwood
Type of cancer: Squamous skin cancer on her hip
Date diagnosed: May 2016
Treatment: Mohs surgery.
What would you say to someone who was just diagnosed with cancer?
Use the resources more. If they would like someone to bring them dinner tonight, tell them. If they would like to talk about it, call a good listener.
How cancer has cancer changed you?
I think it has made me more pessimistic. Unfortunately, because of my heavy family history of cancer, we don’t get good news often. It seems like I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It has made me more negative.
What has cancer taught you?
Mostly is has taught me to make the most of today. Tomorrow is not promised. Live each day to the fullest. Everyone’s treatment is different, you have to take it a day at a time and help them the best way you can today. When they need you, you need to step up, they might not be there tomorrow. Do as much as you can for them on any given day. Act now and don’t make excuses.