Toni Aldrich Church loved her breasts. They were 36 DD. They defined her femininity.
"They were the eye-catcher," she said.
She took care of them, inspecting them -- regularly, religiously, ever since she was 16, "just like they taught you in junior high school" -- for lumps, bumps, dimples and puckers. Around Thanksgiving 2010, while lying on a bed with her lover, she found a lump on her left breast.
Because she was just 39, her doctor told her not to be alarmed.
"It's probably just a cyst," he said, telling her she should wait until the recommended age of 40 to have a mammogram.
But Church knew her breasts. She knew they weren't fibrous. When the doctor suggested her caffeine intake might be to blame, she shot down that theory, too, telling him she had quit drinking caffeine eight months earlier. With that, he sent her in for a mammogram, which determined she had not just one but three lumps.
Waiting for the results of the biopsy was excruciating, she says.
"They told me to bring family members and they set me in a room with nothing but cancer literature," says the mother of Kennedi, 19, Kasey, 17, and Kameron, 13, and the grandmother of Kayleana, who turned 1 on October 6. All signs pointed to 'You have cancer' before I knew I had cancer. That had me scared."
The "marble" turned out to be nothing, but one of the tumors -- one of the two she hadn't felt because they were so tiny -- was cancerous.
"I went numb when I got the news," Church says. "I thought, 'I can't stop. I'm a full-time parent. I go to school full time. I work full time. I can't have this. I can't quit. I can't slow down. I can't let something like this stop me. No, no!'"
She told her parents she found a lump, but couldn't bring herself to tell them she had cancer. "My Daddy said, 'Everything will be okay.' He told me not to worry about anything."
Just a few days later, on Dec. 29, she received more shattering news: Her father had died.
"My biggest supporter was my daddy. He supported me in everything; always saw the greatness in me. My integrity, my strength, who I am as a woman -- all of that came from my mom. But my daddy was my cheerleader. When he died, I wondered who would be my cheerleader."
She knew the answer to that: God.
Church, who has worked at CVS in Gastonia for about 15 years, took a leave from her job as lead technician in the pharmacy to undergo a lumpectomy and radiation, but she wouldn't take a break from her master of divinity studies at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C.
"I only missed one night of school," she says. "I didn't go to be pronounced 'Superwoman.' I put the cape in the closet. The 'S' on my chest didn't mean 'Super.' It meant 'Survivor.' I had a support system at Gardner-Webb. My fellow Christians and pastors in school kept me going. That's why I went."
Receiving radiation was a lonely experience, she says. "I was in this room, lying down. I was told not to breathe, not to move. They locked the doors behind me. Great big metal doors. I thought, 'I'm alone.' It was the most alone I felt during my whole ordeal with cancer."
For 20 minutes at a time, Monday through Friday, for six weeks, Church received radiation treatments. She used that time to build her faith, to talk to God and to meditate.
"I would hear, 'You're not alone. I would not forsake you.' This was my time to release and to relate and to grieve and get through."
After 33 rounds of radiation, she thought she was through with cancer. She didn't have the cancer gene. The cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes. In addition to the lumpectomy and radiation, she was put on the drug Tamoxifen to lessen her chances of the cancer coming back.
"I took it religiously, every day of the week. If I dropped a pill on the floor, I picked it up and took it," Church says.
In January 2014, three years after her lumpectomy, Church, a yo-yo dieter, decided to get serious about losing weight. She wanted to walk across the stage at graduation from Gardner-Webb, looking as good as she was feeling, health-wise. With the help of a personal trainer friend, she began working out -- sometimes as much as two hours a day, six days a week. The weight began melting off, but Church decided she wasn't going to weigh herself until her graduation date.
Right around her 43rd birthday on March 2, just days before her yearly physical, Church felt another lump. She blamed it on working out, on building muscle, on her breasts reducing. She had no concerns so she didn't bother telling her doctor. She didn't have to. He felt the lump during her exam and sent her in for a diagnostic mammogram. While that lump was just overlapping tissue, another one -- this time in her right breast -- turned out to be cancerous, as did three lymph nodes.
Church honored a request by her pastor, the Rev. Daris Curry, to deliver the Mother's Day message on May 11 at her church, New Gethsemane Baptist in Gastonia. She graduated the next day from Gardner-Webb, and then had a bilateral mastectomy a week later. On Oct. 27, she will complete six rounds of chemotherapy and will then undergo six weeks of radiation. After that she will complete breast reconstruction.
"I'm going with a 'D' instead of a double D," she says with a laugh.
After losing her breasts, Church wasn't laughing, however.
"I dealt with issues concerning my beauty and my hopes of a relationship -- in essence, my sexuality," she admits. "But I no longer feel my breasts define my beauty. I'm young and single. I have big hopes of a man loving me and thinking I'm beautiful."
She also has high hopes that she will beat the cancer that has now spread into her chest wall.
"I still have my smile. My faith has kept me uplifted. My friends, my support system, they have kept me moving. Quitting is not an option. It never has been."
After her first bout with cancer, Church lost her home and her car. This time, as she once again steps away from her job while she goes through treatments, she is asking for help -- and she's receiving it. A fundraising silent auction, concert and celebration will be held Saturday, Oct. 18, from 1 to 11 p.m. at Flipflop's Beach Bar and Grill, 106 College Road, Greensboro, N.C. All proceeds will go directly to help support Church and her family.
And if cancer wins?
"All is well with my soul," she says. "If I die tonight, all is well with my soul."
This blog first appeared at anniescholl.com