For Darlene Sandlin Hutto, even the mundane things in life have taken on a new aspect. Since her bout with breast cancer, even trivial things, like cleaning house, invoke a certain feeling of gratitude just to be alive and to feel well enough to do these routine tasks.
Perhaps it was because Darlene had helped care for her mother, Ruthie, a breast cancer survivor since 2003, that she knew more about what breast cancer means than a person who has never had a second or even a third-hand experience with this life altering disease.
When she found a sore spot on her right breast in November of 2014, she felt a tingle of alarm, but put it down to exercising at the gym and resolved not to worry about it until after the holidays.
When it hadn’t gone away by the first of the year, she paid her gynecologist a visit. He thought the sore spot was due to an infection. She was prescribed antibiotics and he recommended that she schedule a mammogram.
Although the tender spot was still there, it was something at the bottom of the same breast that concerned the technician who performed the mammogram.
“I believe God put that sore place there so that I would go to the doctor,” said Hutto, candidly. “I still don’t know what caused it.”
At that point the suspicious spot was still too small to be felt or seen clearly on a mammogram. Her gynecologist recommended an ultrasound guided biopsy to help identify it.
March 15th was one of those rare days in North Alabama when the world sort of comes to a halt and fields of dead grass and roadways turn into a brilliant, beautiful wonderland of sparkling white. Because of the snow, Darlene’s husband, Randy, was home that day. They were enjoying being lazy around the house when the phone rang.
It changed Darlene’s world forever when she heard the words, “It’s cancer,” from her doctor.
She went numb all over. “My mind was going in a thousand different directions,” she confessed. “But even from the very beginning, I felt that God had His hands on me. I couldn’t change anything on my own. I knew that I had to trust Him.”
Randy took it hard. She encouraged him to have a positive attitude which would help her deal with what lay ahead of them. “From then on he was very supportive.”
When Randy looks back at that time and it still seems that it couldn’t be happening to them.
“I could hardly believe it. At first when they were doing the tests they would say that it was probably nothing but they needed to make sure, so when they called it was a shock,” said Randy. “I come from a praying family and I know that prayer works. Man can only do so much and then we have to turn things over to God, so that’s what I did.”
Their daughter, Rachel, was at UNA in the dorm when her parents called her with the news. “Of course she cried, and was upset because the roads were too bad for her to come home, but her sorority sisters were a big comfort to her and in a couple of days we were able to be together.”
It would take approximately a year for Darlene to deal with cancer surgery, chemo, radiation and many, many tests, but throughout her entire journey, through the maze of office visits, medications, chemo and radiation treatments, her faith kept her going. She relied on this Bible verse to sustain her, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26 (KJV)
“I did have my bad days, but when those days came I would pray and ask God to help me. He gave me a peace that no one else could have provided,” said Darlene.
Other Bible verses would come to her mind when the dark times came, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:14 (NIV)
As she met with the plastic surgeon to discuss reconstruction options, she would rely on those promises to help guide her decisions. “I learned that the reason my cancer hadn’t been diagnosed earlier was because I had dense breast tissue,” she explained.
By the time spring break rolled around, when other people were vacationing and going about life as usual, Darlene was being scheduled for surgery. Having talked over her case with her doctors and her family she came to the conclusion that it was the safest plan for her continued good health to have a double mastectomy.
The surgery took four and a half hours. Darlene was unaware of the clock’s ticking but for Randy and Rachel it was a very long time. Rachel kept a journal so that her mother would have an account of everything that happened while she was under sedation.
“I am so thankful that Rachel did that for me,” said Darlene recently. “She was always my cheerleader, always upbeat, and Randy, although worried, remained positive and was always there beside me.”
Following a three–day stay in the hospital, Darlene was discharged. The next day, two of the five drain tubes were removed. Two more were removed the following Monday, and the last drain was taken out on Wednesday. “I can recall being very sore when trying to move around,” said Darlene, “My chest and ribs hurt a lot!”
The pain was so intense that at one point she called the doctor because she feared that something was wrong. He assured her that this is normal for what she had just gone through.
On April Fool’s Day they got her pathology report. “It was Stage 3 invasive mammary carcinoma and abundant ductal carcinoma in situ. It had spread to 13 out of 16 lymph nodes.”
It was Triple Negative, which was really frightening to the Hutto’s because they understood that this was a very aggressive type of breast cancer that would require chemotherapy and radiation.
Again, her faith kicked in high gear and she was given the strength to stand up to that diagnosis.
Over the course of the next few months, she would be required to visit her plastic surgeon so that saline could be added to her expanders. “Each time they became more uncomfortable because it was stretching my skin and pushing down on my ribs,” she said.
Just before beginning her chemo treatments, she got a wig. “I knew that my hair would be coming out and I wanted to have it ready,” she said. “The staff and owner of Special Touch by Eunice were very compassionate and helpful. While I was there Eunice gave me a copy of the poem, Attitude, which taught me how much my attitude mattered.”
Along the way people were put in her path that prayed for her, just spontaneously, some were complete strangers, but they gave her the strength to endure chemo treatments, which were sometimes rough but not as bad as they once were. “I ate a cracker before getting out of bed and took a Zofran pill, and I believe that helped,” she said.
On April 8th, just as spring was breaking into pastel colors all around her, she was getting a port put in just below her collarbone. The following day she had a Multiple-Gated Acquisition (MUGA) scan of her heart to use as a baseline because some chemo drugs have been known to damage the heart.
Randy took her to her first chemo treatment on April 13th. He listened as the nurse explained to them about the drugs Darlene would be given. “Cytoxan, Taxotere, and Adriamycin, the last of which is known among cancer patients as the ‘red devil’,” said Darlene. “She also said that she had one patient who refused to call it that and instead referred to it as, “the blood of Jesus Christ.”
“So that’s what I chose to call it, too, because He was helping me get through all of this, He was killing the cancer in my body.”
It was about this time when Darlene opted to have a test to find out if her particular type of cancer was hereditary. “The BRCA gene test turned out to be negative,” she said thankfully. “It was important for us to know this because with my mother having it and now me, we were all concerned for Rachel.”
A drug called Neulasta was administered by injection to help Darlene by boosting her white blood cells. She would be given this shot after each of six chemo treatments.
A few weeks after the first chemo session, her head became tender and her hair started to fall out. “The first time I looked in the mirror I saw my brother, Farrell, looking back at me. I never realized how much we looked alike until then.”
Women who are going through chemo are eligible to attend meetings sponsored by the American Cancer Society called, “Look Good, Feel Better,” led by licensed cosmetologists, trained in applying makeup, fitting wigs and dispensing advice. “Everyone leaves with a bag filled with name brand cosmetics and there isn’t a charge for this,” Darlene explained. “It gives you confidence when you lose your hair to be able to look good again.”
The surgery threw her into early menopause. On top of everything else, she experienced the dreaded hot flashes, and mood swings associated with that time in a woman’s life. “I would have a good week, then a bad week,” she explained.
Her first time back at church after surgery was Easter Sunday, “It was very emotional for me,” she recalled. “I cried from the time I got there until I left, tears steadily flowed as we sang, “Because He Lives.”
It also helped to encourage her when she attended a meeting of a local breast cancer support group called, “The Rack Pack.” That summer she attended monthly meetings and met some really incredible women.
She also attended meetings of the Lawrence County Breast Cancer Group, where she found another group of women who both gave and needed support. By that time she was getting well, and as a survivor she was often a real life success story for those who were in the first stages of the disease.
Her brother, Farrell, was a constant encourager to her, although he was a double amputee and in a wheelchair, often sick himself, he was always willing to listen to her and to give her a remarkable example of how people can survive under the most unimaginable circumstances. “He has since passed away, but I will always treasure his wonderful attitude,” she said softly.
Randy’s cousin, Cornelia Hutto, was another cheergiver, who wrote Darlene letters once a week. “They were filled with good wishes, jokes, prayers, scriptures and quotes from the Bible. I really looked forward to those weekly letters!”
Darlene’s four-legged support group, Nala, and Pixi, were a great comfort to her when she was still too weak to get around much. “It was like they knew not to jump too hard, and would cuddle carefully in the recliner with me,” she said.
Some of Darlene’s church family at Liberty United Methodist in Moulton formed “Liberty’s Ladies” and along with friends, family and former classmates (LCHS class of ’84) entered the Relay For Life in Lawrence County. “I was blessed to have a team in my honor, Anita Linderman, a childhood friend, came up with the idea and several others participated. My team sold enough luminaries in my honor to spell out the words, Love, Hope and Cure in the bleachers of the football stadium. It meant so much to me to know they were there to support me,” she said.
She took her last chemo treatment on July 27, 2015. She continued her physical therapy because she was experiencing some lymphedema in her right arm. “I still massage it occasionally if I notice any tightness in that arm,” she said.
Her first radiation treatment was on August 27. She took them every weekday for a total of 28 treatments. “The radiation treatments were much easier than chemo,” she said. “They made me a little tired but nothing like the chemo.”
On October 6, she rang the bell, indicating that she had finished her treatments.
After speaking with her doctor and learning that ovarian cancer is linked to breast cancer, Darlene opted to have a preventative hysterectomy, which was performed on January 26, 2016. It had been just over a year since her ordeal began, and now she was nearing the finish line, her goal to be cancer free was near.
Implants were surgically installed on March 1, 2016, the expanders replaced with saline implants. “The implants are better,” she said, “but they are still uncomfortable, especially on the right side where I had radiation.”
A follow-up test showed no damage to her heart from the chemo treatments.
To men whose wives get that dreaded phone call, Randy advises that they be as calm and positive as possible, “Even though you’re initial reaction is to be frightened, try hard to be encouraging,” he said. “And pray. I wanted prayers from everywhere when we found out how aggressive her cancer was.”
Those prayers worked and are still working today. Darlene is now a five-year survivor.
“I thank God that I am here to tell this story, and to have the opportunity to let other women know that it can be beaten. Life on earth is short, enjoy it to its fullest, and make the most important decision of your life, accept Jesus as your Savior and you are promised everlasting life in Heaven with Him,” she said in encouragement to all of the women who are just beginning the same journey she has traveled, her hand in His every step of the way.