Charlene DeYong, longtime Spanish Cove resident, constantly looks for the positives that have come from her breast cancer diagnosis.
Charlene was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 78 in May of this year.
“It’s been quite an experience, just to sum it up in a few words,” Charlene said. “It was totally unexpected, and I was totally off-the-chart surprised. I guess I was naïve in thinking ‘well I’m 78 years old and there’s really not a history of cancer in my immediate family for sure’ so I just never really gave it a thought.
“And voilà, it can happen whether you think about it or not.”
Charlene and her husband Johnny had their six month checkups with their primary physician, but Charlene was working on a project a couple of days before that. She said she reached to grab her tote bag of crafts off the top shelf of her closet but it was heavier than she expected.
“It had a lot more junk in it than I expected. It kind of slipped and started to fall and my thought was, ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to spill all this stuff out of this tote bag and I’m going to have to pick it all up,’ and that was my worry,” Charlene said. “I grabbed at it and it kind of hit me against the chest. It wasn’t any big deal, but it did hurt.”
Charlene said the next day she felt a lump on her breast where the bag hit.
“Here again, not knowing anything about anything, I just assumed—my arms and chest were kind of sore like the bag had sorta pulled it—it was no big deal,” Charlene said. “But being a good little girl, I mentioned it to the primary care doctor when we were there and he quickly said ‘I’m not an authority on this. It’s not in my scope, but I think you should have it checked.’”
She said almost immediately she was at surgeon and an oncologist.
“And we were going on our way for treatment,” Charlene said. “It turned out to be cancerous. Both the surgeon and the oncologist said it was just happen chance that the bag, me catching it, it bumping me—it didn’t make any difference, but at least we caught it.”
Johnny and Charlene agreed it was scary.
“We were scared to death,” Johnny said. “The only thing to do is go get treated.”
Charlene said the support she has received is the most important part.
“In situations like this, your support system—from your family, your friends, your church, in our case Spanish Cove—it is absolutely invaluable. There is no way that you can go through something like this very successfully without support,” Charlene said. “We have had tremendous, tremendous support. You just can’t say enough for every group.”
Charlene is a retired school teacher and Johnny is a retired school teacher and principal. After retiring from teaching, Johnny went into ministry before officially retiring.
She said they not only received support from people they’re around now, but people from other communities where they’ve lived and students they had.
One of Charlene’s previous student classes actually sent flowers and a card to Charlene while she was receiving treatment.
“[The card] said ‘1990 class of Marlow High School, We love you,’” Johnny said. “We don’t know who did it, someone from that class obviously, but that was the class that she had had in kindergarten.”
“That kind of shakes you up when that many years later, you get something like that. People that you haven’t heard from in a long time,” Charlene said. “But the lesson I learned is I never realized how much it could help you on a day that you were down just a little bit to get a card in the mail, or a phone call. It doesn’t have to be anything big because most of the time you’re taken care of with the big stuff, but it’s those little things. That’s my goal, to try to do better when someone I know needs a little bit of cheering up.
“I’ll be real honest, I’d send a card or you know, but I was not real good at that. You get your own little world going and you’re busy and so on, but I definitely am going to try to do better.”
Charlene said until she was diagnosed, those kinds of things were not what she thought about.
“You know it’s nice to send a card to someone that’s sick. I mean, that’s the polite thing to do and your mother raised you right. But when you’re actually the one that is the beneficiary and something comes along, it’s very meaningful,” she said.
Charlene and Johnny have been married for sixty years. She said he’s been her biggest support.
“He’s been my rock, that’s for sure. Get you a good husband before you get [breast cancer],” she laughed. “He was always willing to help do something, but he took over for me.”
Charlene receives her treatment from Cancer Specialists of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. Her list of medical procedures from finding out she had breast cancer to treating it is long. She’s received a mammogram, needle biopsy, echocardiogram, CAT scans, PET scans, mastectomy, surgery for her port, twelve weeks of chemotherapy, and triweekly Herceptin.
“As far as the cancer treatment, I think it’s very individualized,” Charlene said. “There’s a lot of it that’s the same, but when you’re getting your chemo infusion, the person next to you may have a little different mixture of medication and so on.
“I had them doing stuff to me that I didn’t even know existed.”
Charlene said she’s having to learn to walk again since the surgeries.
“The first time that I really kind of walked on my own when I came home, my knees buckled and I just collapsed. It scared me to death. I didn’t know what to think,” Charlene said. “I’m doing better though.”
She has a cane she can use, but said she doesn’t like to use it much.
“I’ll tell you, talk about having an appreciation for people. I have tremendous appreciation for people who use a cane,” Charlene said. “I’m a Lucy and an Ethel moment with this thing. It’s just crazy. And yet, it does kind of give me a little bit of help.”
Charlene talked highly of the staff at Cancer Specialists of Oklahoma.
“The people that have been treating me are incredibly nice,” she said. “You know everybody there is not there on their very best day. They’re there because they’re sick. I have yet to see one of the nurses without a smile on their face and just asking ‘can I make you any more comfortable?’ They have big recliner chairs and there’s little snacks and things if your taste is such that you want to nibble on something. They bring you a cover if you’re cold, they try to make you cool if you’re hot, it is amazing. And you know from whatever time in the morning they start to five or six in the evening, it’s a long day.”
The hardest part for Charlene is she couldn’t eat much, and when she did, she said it was like chewing cardboard—not because of the food itself, but because of something that gathers in her mouth due to the treatments.
“I’d wake up in the morning and it felt like someone had poured Elmer’s Glue all in my mouth,” Charlene said. “A lot of people have trouble with food so I’m not the only one, but it’s doing better. I ate a chicken strip, so you know I really went all out for lunch. It didn’t taste a whole lot better, but I tolerated it a whole lot better.
“Weird things will taste good, and things that should taste good don’t.”
Charlene said although that’s the case, her biggest thing is she never wants to focus on the negatives.
“I don’t want someone to read that and panic because you should always look at the positives,” Charlene said. “I don’t think it’d be right to pretend ‘oh, wow, this is just a six week vacation,’ but it’s like anything else. You can make it what you want it to be in a sense. You can find all the bad points and all the downsides, but I choose not to.
“You play the hand you’re dealt, and this is what we’re dealing with now. Let’s go on with it and take it day by day by day. Don’t look at the past and don’t worry about the future, just deal with it.”
Charlene joked that one of the biggest positives of her diagnosis is that Johnny learned how to do the laundry.
She said although she jokes a lot, breast cancer is something to pay attention to.
“It is a serious illness and it’s one that people should be aware of,” Charlene said. “Stay alert for symptoms maybe, and get checked.”
Johnny said there’s been awfully good people there to help Charlene and if someone else is going through it, there’s good people to help them too.
“It all moves quickly and everything just falls into place,” Charlene said. “There has to be a reason. What that reason is, I don’t know for sure. But that’s how it happened with us. Everything just fell into place.”