YORK COUNTY — Melody Parker milled around with the other runners in the early morning hours, waiting for the start of the Cooper River Bridge Run in Mount Pleasant.
There was anticipation. There was doubt.
“Can I run the 6.2 miles?” she asked herself. She knew she had before. The previous year she finished the run in just over an hour.
But that was before cancer.
It had been a little more than a year since the 34-year-old wife and mother of two daughters discovered a lump on her breast, just days before her first bridge run.
“The spot didn’t feel right,” she said.
After the race she and her husband, Franklin, went to the doctor. She kept thinking “it’s just a cyst,” as there wasn’t a history of cancer in her family. An uncle had cancer, but he had smoked. Then she saw the look on her doctor’s face.
Parker had triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of cancer that grows fast and is less likely to be seen on a mammogram. Fifteen to 25 percent of all cancers are triple negative breast cancer and it often strikes younger women. It also has a high risk of relapse.
She got the news on April 20, 2012. Eight days later she was in surgery.
Her husband will never forget the night before surgery.
The doctor called their home outside York. He had been going over test results. The cancer might be worse than they thought, he said. “I remember it like yesterday; the news couldn’t have been more devastating,” Franklin said.
Parker’s surgery was scheduled for three hours. It took six. She went into surgery fearing they would do a mastectomy. The doctors, however, removed the lump as well as some cancer in the lymph nodes. They saved the breast
They were optimistic they had caught the cancer in its earliest stage.
Relief, however, turned to the darkest day of her struggle with cancer.
What was ahead?
“If I was ready, I wasn’t ready,” she said.
She faced six weeks of chemotherapy followed by seven weeks of radiation therapy. She went once a week for chemotherapy, followed by a Monday-through-Friday regime for radiation.
She lost her hair to chemotherapy after just 15 days. Her 11-year-old daughter Alexis cut off what was left of the brunette locks. Like many cancer survivors a good day was when she could get out of bed. She was tired Monday through Thursday, but would rally for the weekend only to have go back for another chemo treatment.
Then came radiation, which was every weekday from 3:30 to 4 in the afternoon.
Recovery would not have been possible without her family, friends and faith, she said.
When she was initially diagnosed she worried about how her daughters, Ashley and Alexis, would react. “I had to stay strong. I didn’t want them to see me struggle,” she said.
Ashley, then 14, asked lots of questions. “I didn’t know you could get it that young,” she said.
Alexis volunteered that she would take her mother’s cancer if she could. She told her mother “we are going to beat this.”
Her daughters were caring, doing chores and cooking. “We even didn’t fight as much,” Ashley said.
Sometimes even the smallest things made a difference, Parker said. She remembers the many times her brother-in-law would come over with a bowl of chicken soup.
And there was prayer.
“God worked things out,” said her husband.
She returned to work wearing a wig that resembled her previous hairstyle. The wig, however, came off as soon as she got in the car to go home, tossed in the passenger seat. Her hair came back, curlier than before. So did her appetite; she suddenly liked tomatoes more.
The last radiation treatment was just before Christmas. Soon thereafter, Parker went for her first run, which she had enjoyed from her days of running track in high school in Minot, N.D.
Her first run was slow and steady. She didn’t go very far. Nonetheless, she felt good. “My heart was still strong,” she said.
Then came the Cooper River Bridge Run. It was important for her to run it again. Her husband entered. So did some friends.
More than 40,000 people entered the event, which takes runners from Mount Pleasant, over the dramatic Cooper River bridge and finishes in downtown Charleston. The elite men finished the race in about 28 minutes, the elite women in 32.
As she raced, Parker outpaced her husband and friends. Even though she was running faster, “I spent more time enjoying the run.” Her cancer had taught her to take in more things, let more things go.
She finished in 1:06, three minutes faster than her previous run. Her husband finished in 1:13, admitting he had walked portions of the race. A group of friends finished in 1:30. There was a big celebration afterward.
She met her goal. She had raced again.
Her cancer is in remission and she will continue to be checked for the next several years. “I beat this, but I won’t really know for five years,” she said.
She looks forward, however, with a new confidence.
“I’m not the first person, nor the last, to go through this. If someone 60 to 70 can do it, I can do it.”
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066