Jan Davis and Janet Sumner looked at each other and laughed heartily Wednesday afternoon when told that someone had described them as “super women.”
True, neither of them was wearing colorful tights or a flowing cape. But both Surry County residents have overcome cancer through efforts worthy of an action hero, and are proud that they did so by “fighting like a girl.”
“We fought like girls and we won,” said Sumner, a longtime staff member of the county Department of Social Services who was twice diagnosed with malignant melanoma over the past decade.
Sumner indicated that while members of the fairer sex aren’t known for their pugilistic abilities, the wide array of emotional energy they DO tend to generate can be channeled into useful weapons against a deadly disease. While there might be plenty of tears along the way, the discovery of an inner strength can occur as well.
“You have to fight it,” said Davis, a retired county government employee who last year was diagnosed with breast cancer.
However, she has survived the disease through intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“You do go through those ‘pity party’ days,” Sumner admitted regarding the emotional roller-coaster involved. But even a female can be a vicious combatant, which is the message behind the national “fight like a girl” motto. It stresses not only battling as a cancer victim but striving for a cure — as a survivor, warrior, advocate and caregiver.
“You’ve got to say, ‘you’re not going to beat me,’” Sumner said of what this means to her.
From Volunteers To Victims
Although neither Davis nor Sumner donned the garb of a caped crusader for an interview several days ago, they did wear purple clothing — representing their long involvement with the Relay for Life program of the American Cancer Society. Purple is a color of hope that symbolizes survivorship, which the movement has embraced.
The two women are great exponents of what Relay for Life is all about, according to Dianne Johnson, who is co-chairing its 2012 campaign in Surry County. She called them “super, super women.”
Sumner and Davis have been involved with Relay for Life about 14 years — long before either was diagnosed with cancer. They became part of the effort in support of a DSS co-worker, Kim Reynolds, who died of the disease.
“We called each other our partners in crime,” Davis said of her and Sumner’s relationship in those early days. It really blossomed after Davis, who worked many years for the Surry County Sheriff’s Office, joined the DSS.
“They have been friends for quite some time,” said Johnson.
But what neither woman knew back then was that they one day would be beneficiaries of the very program to which they were volunteering so much time.
“When we started this, we did not realize it would end up happening to each other,” Davis said of their respective cancer diagnoses and the resulting treatments.
“Not in a million years.”
The annual Relay for Life effort operates through different teams around the county, which includes clubs and employees of governmental agencies such as the Department of Social Services. There are nearly 45 teams this year, which hold various fundraisers that will culminate with a Relay for Life walk in mid-September.
“Hard For A Woman”
Janet Sumner first got her bad news more than 10 years ago, when doctors found she had malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer. That required a six-month treatment plan in the early part of 2002.
She endured that bout with the disease only to be diagnosed with it again in 2009, which brought 14 months of interferon treatments.
“This is my 11th year as a cancer survivor,” Sumner said.
Davis, meanwhile, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2011. While a cancer history was not prominent in Sumner’s family, this was not the case with Davis; her mother died from the disease and she also had a sister stricken.
“It’s really personal for me and if it had not been for my faith, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
While chemotherapy and radiation treatments and surgery have led to a happy ending for Davis, as well as Sumner, memories of the low points of their experience remain vivid. They agree that cancer presents challenges to anyone, but especially females.
“It’s really hard for a woman when you think you’re going to lose your hair,” Sumner said of one sensitive element.
Although hers ended up only thinning during the process, this was not the case for Davis, long known for her thick curly mane.
“I lost every bit of my hair,” she said. But today, a person meeting Davis would never know that. “My curly hair has come back, so I’m not complaining,” the cancer survivor said.
Davis, who has maintained a strong religious faith, as has Sumner, said her mindset throughout was that she would be a winner either way — by overcoming cancer and living, or dying and going to heaven.
Both Sumner and Davis have constantly relied on a Bible verse: “If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.”
Sumner said she learned something firsthand which many cancer victims had told her of when she was just a volunteer, regarding the disease’s effects on one’s energy level.
“One thing I really did learn, people will tell you that you’ll feel fine one day and the next day you can’t get out of bed.” she said. “You don’t realize it until you can’t get out of bed.”
However, she managed to remain active. “I worked the whole time,” Sumner said of her job with the social services agency, crediting its staff with being understanding throughout her dual cancer fights. “DSS was like family to me.”
Davis considers herself fortunate, since she had retired in 2010 after a 30-year career in county government and didn’t have to worry about getting up and going to work every day. “That was a blessing.”
Both women also are married and have large extended families who provided much-needed support.
“My family has been terrific, and my church family,” Davis said of the congregation at Blues Grove Baptist Church. It has a Relay for Life team — and 21 cancer survivors. Such a figure for a relatively small church speaks volumes about the proliferation of cancer in society today, Davis agreed.
Services Provide Boost
There has been debate about the huge investments in cancer research, and the progress being made given that most everyone has a family member or acquaintance who has been victimized.
Yet one thing Sumner and Davis believe has improved over the years are the drugs available to deal with the side-effects of the disease, such as the sickness often accompanying chemotherapy treatments.
Something else people might not realize are the various services available to local patients. These are supported by Relay for Life fundraisers that aid research and other programs, thus allowing contributions made here to return to the community.
One key resource is a 24-hour hotline operated by the American Cancer Society which someone can call for support. Money also is available to provide transportation to and from treatments, and even to have the homes of cancer patients cleaned, according to the two volunteers.
The hotline can be an especially welcome resource in the middle of the night, when the outlook is darkest both literally and figuratively, Sumner says. The fact that Relay for Life walk events go on all night, such as the one upcoming locally in September, addresses the significance of that period.
Since Sumner and Davis are both team captains, they’re actively involved in efforts to generate money for the 2012 Relay for Life event, which has been moved to Sept. 15 this year from a springtime date.
“We just want everyone to come out, ‘cause there’s a lot of work that goes into putting the Relay on,” Davis said of the scheduled all-day affair. It will feature a survivors’ walk, the lighting of luminaries in remembrance of those claimed by cancer, live music, concession sales and other activities.
A kickoff event of Relay for Life, a survivors’ dinner, will be held Tuesday at First Baptist Church in Mount Airy, with attendance of 400 former victims and guests expected.
Johnson said the two women offer a unique perspective on the annual campaign.
“They’ve seen Relay through all the different processes,” she noted of their involvement from volunteer to victim and back to volunteer.
Keeping Up The Fight
Jan Davis and Janet Sumner don’t know what the future will bring, but do know that their experiences have equipped them with a fighting spirit to handle whatever comes.
One benefit of their ordeals, both say, is that they don’t get upset with life’s little setbacks as they once did.
“You don’t sweat the small stuff — you just let little things go,” said Davis. “I thank God every morning for letting me get up.”
Along with tapping into one’s inner strength, a key to getting through each day for a cancer sufferer is trying to laugh more than cry, according to the two survivors. They’re prepared in case the disease ever rears its ugly head in their lives again.
“If cancer comes back,” Sumner said defiantly, “we’ll knock it down again.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.