Wheeler ‘a much better person’ after cancer experience

By Paul Novak

HAMLET — For most of us, the idea of a cancer diagnosis conjures up images of difficult hospital stays, wrangling with insurance companies, and yes, dealing with thoughts of our own mortality.

Now imagine facing all of that alone.

Carmella Johnson and Ann Wheeler want to ensure sure that doesn’t happen in Richmond County.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Ann Wheeler

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Ann Wheeler

Johnson is the supervisor of the Hamlet Public Library and last year provided support for Breast Cancer awareness Month by distributing literature and the widely familiar pink ribbons symbolizing support for those affected by breast cancer. Now she hopes to help speed breast cancer awareness and support through the creation of regular cancer support group meetings in the Hamlet Public Library where she works.

“I want to let people know that they’re not alone,” Johnson said. “My grandparents died from cancer, so I just want to let them know that they’re not by themselves, and then I think it’s important to get that message out, that it’s never too early to start.”

In Richmond County, this is a message it seems too many people haven’t received. Many women find themselves quickly overwhelmed by the turmoil a cancer diagnosis brings, and it’s when things begin to get really difficult that they realize they have few people to turn to for support. Single mothers, those with little or no family, and sadly enough, those with families and friends who just don’t seem to understand how devastating breast cancer is, find themselves suddenly facing not only the fight of their life, but a fight they think they’ll have to make by themselves.

The small meeting was a quiet event with the attendees made up of a group of women that if anything, exemplified just how indiscriminate cancer can be. The women were young and just getting started with life. They were senior citizens who had already accomplished much and still wanted to do more. They were women trying to work while also managing a household. They were retirees who only wanted to enjoy what was supposed to be their free years. The one thing they all had in common was they in some way found their lives changed by breast cancer, and they wanted to do something about it.

Wheeler knows all too well what these women likely have had to unwillingly accept into their lives. Co-chair of the Susan Sharpe Cancer Support Group which serves Richmond County, she also is a breast cancer survivor.

“In 1999, 15 years ago, my youngest daughter had just gotten married, had a good job teaching in Durham, my oldest daughter was married, and it was like two years before it was time for me to retire. I was really excited. I mean I had taught school, been in school all my life, since I was six years old. Probably would have been five if they’d had kindergarten back then, but, I found a lump. And that’s something that not, not any woman wants to find.”

Wheeler suddenly found herself scared and terrified at a time when she was expecting to soon have fun enjoying her retirement. She and her husband were planning to travel, to welcome the arrival of grandchildren, to watch as their own children succeeded with their lives. Wheeler and her husband quickly decided that they were going to fight, and in her husbands words, “fight with the best.”

She quickly found herself not happy with cancer care environment in Richmond County. Although Wheeler left Richmond County to receive treatment which fortunately has been successful, one thing she realized was how lucky she was to have the support of a loving husband and family, and that although she couldn’t do a lot about how cancer care is provided, she could do something about providing support.

“I have told Carmella that since I have been involved with the Susan Sharp cancer group, I have found that there are lots of people in our county who don’t have the support system that I had,” Wheeler said. “We have people here in our county who don’t have family. We have people here who don’t have a church group. We got people here who don’t have colleagues at work. We had one girl who told the story of going to have her mastectomy, her brother picked her up, took her to her door, set her suitcase inside the door, and left. That to me is not acceptable.”

Women like Johnson and Wheeler recognize just how important it is to not only receive effective treatment when a cancer diagnosis is made, but how deeply important it is for there to be some sort of emotional and practical support available as well. Breast cancer is an issue that can affect any woman, at almost any age, and with the increasingly demanding roles women are finding themselves in these days, it can be nearly impossible to cope and succeed in treatment without some sort of added support.

This is the support that women like Johnson and Wheeler hope to make more women in Richmond County aware is available. With help from organizations like the Susan Sharpe Cancer Support Group and the Susan G. Komen Organization, the world’s largest nonprofit source of funding for the fight against breast cancer, Johnson and Wheeler hope if nothing else to deliver one very important message to Richmond County residents affected by breast cancer. That message is a simple one. You are not alone.

Wheeler summed up their goal succinctly at the end of the meeting with a few simple words.

“I have made a promise to god, and everybody. If it’s one o’clock or three am, I will be there.”

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