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December 2015 Survivor of the Month – Paula Clifton
by Robert McNamara
Surrounded by loved ones and the warmth of a bonfire, with the sounds of bluegrass echoing off the nearby trees, Paula Clifton feels at home. She has always loved to go camping with family and friends as an escape from the busy routine of teaching and all that comes with being an active mother of two. But at some point each trip, the dancing flames always settle to embers and the fiddle strings eventually fall still. All things come to an end. Two years ago, Paula would begin a journey that would teach her that this lesson applies not just to the moments of respite in life, but also to the times of great trial. Nothing lasts forever… not even a fight with breast cancer.
Before her diagnosis, Paula might not have appeared to be someone you would expect to have health issues. “I have always led a healthy lifestyle. I am a vegetarian, don’t smoke, do drugs, or any other bad vices. I kept a healthy weight and (stayed) up-to-date on all my doctor’s appointments and mammograms.” In addition to taking care of herself, Paula stayed busy by taking care of her home and community as well. “My family is very active in church youth groups, school and community…clubs, such as: cheerleading, softball, volleyball, football, baseball, Beta Club, Honors, FFA, showing livestock animals, 4H, and Boy Scouts.” In January of 2013, Paula and her family would relocate to North Springfield, to a 10-acre ranch alive the many trappings that accompany country life, from dirt bikes and four-wheelers, to a menagerie of farm animals. Life was busy, but fun.
In October 2013, just two days before Halloween, Paula would find a lump in her left breast and her life would begin down a new and unexpected trail. The next week and a half would be a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, acronyms, and painful procedures. The final results of the tests would reveal a tumor that was an extremely aggressive form of cancer, which, due to its unfortunate location, was inoperable. “The final stage (was) 3C. This was a very advanced and aggressive form of cancer that was spreading quickly. The cancer cell biology was missing two of three receptors, which makes targeting the cancer cells with chemo more challenging and less effective, and with a higher chance of (the cancer) recurring.”
Despite a healthy lifestyle, and a clear mammogram just three months earlier, Paula had found herself in a fight for her life. She would later learn that detection of her tumor was complicated by something unexpected. “I didn’t know I had dense breast tissue or that was even something to ask about. Because of dense breast tissue, it is harder to find early stage breast cancer. I try to advocate to woman to ask if they have dense breast tissue and if so to take additional measures.”
Cancer was no stranger to Paula, having taken care of her mother for the previous three years during her struggle with lung cancer. As a caretaker, Paula had learned firsthand about the daily grind that comes with such a crucible. Now, the two women would once again thrust themselves into battle, though this time with different roles in the fight. But the journey would not be easy, Paula would endure thirteen months of chemotherapy, more than a year of nausea, tremors, and dizziness. Then, there would be a double mastectomy, forty separate radiation treatments, and numerous follow-ups. “There were too many surgeries and scars to count.”
But Paula would learn that she, much like the bluegrass music that she loves, has an unshakeable sense of optimism that endures. When her hair began to fall out, she asked her husband to shave off the rest, opting for knitted caps and wigs instead. When she was having tough days, she would lean on her husband and parents for support. Friends and co-workers blessed her with a litany of gifts and prayers. Even her young children, Morgan and Jesse, would step up to take on more responsibility around the house. Paula has risen above the pain and complications, and as of her last scan is cancer-free. “I have been to the edge of death and back. I have a lot to fight for. Not that I feel it, but I’m told I’m a strong woman, so I have every intention on beating this!”
The memory of breast cancer does not simply vanish from a survivor’s life. Like the earthy smell of the smoke from a campfire, it lingers long after the visible signs have been extinguished. Paula has learned much from her experiences, lessons that she will embrace for the rest of her life. “I see life with a new perspective. I take more time to focus on the small things that matter with patience, and an open ear to really listen to others. I reflect a lot more often on myself to be a better person, to grow into a more caring, loving, and empathetic person.”
Paula has also found comfort in the ability to give back to others who find themselves on a similar path. “I found tremendous support, information, and fellow survivors that had similar stories to share. We speak our own language that others don’t understand… I am thankful for all the wonderful opportunities I have had to share my story and educate others.”