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Cancer Center survivors at work
Three of the cancer survivors working at the Cancer Center include (from left) Angie Talton, Sheila Williams and Angie Harris.

Wed, Oct 25, 2017 at 08:50 PM

Breast cancer survivors working to help patients get through treatment.

Cancer center patients benefit from the unique perspective offered by survivor employees and volunteers.

It might seem odd that having breast cancer would prompt a career change but it is not uncommon among the survivors now working at the Marshall Cancer Care Center. 

At least four employees and volunteers say they were drawn to work with cancer patients after they went through treatments. Being able to tell a new patient that you really do know what they are going through is very comforting, they agree. (Note: 3 of these survivors -- Angie Talton, Sheila Williams and Angie Harris -- are pictured here.)

“I feel that I can calm people’s fears because I made it through,” said Shelia Williams of Joppa, a Patient Access Clerk at the front desk of the cancer center.  Sheila transferred from her job in the ER at Marshall North when a position opened at the Cancer Care Center in April. “I know what these people are going through.”

That’s key, according to Cindy Sparkman, director of the Cancer Care Center. Survivors have a unique compassion for patients going through treatments. 

“We are blessed with wonderful, caring staff and volunteers at the cancer center, but having employees and volunteers who are also survivors brings a different level of compassion and understanding,” she said. “These ladies have fought the battle and understand all too well the emotional and physical aspects of having breast cancer.  They have chosen to work and serve in the Cancer Center to encourage and inspire others who are making the same journey they once made.”

Routine mammogram caught cancer

Williams, 52, faithfully got her mammogram every year since she turned 35. In 2010 she got called back for an ultrasound test but she had done that before so she didn’t worry. Then she got a call referring her to a surgeon for a ‘suspicious’ spot. Dr. Cynthia Monk recommended a breast biopsy. That scared her, she recalls. When she went for a follow-up to the biopsy, Williams was told she had ductal carcinoma in situ, which is a non-invasive cancer where the abnormal cells are contained in the milk ducts of the breast. 

“When I heard the word cancer, that was it,” she says. “I didn’t hear anything else.”

Fortunately, the biopsy got all of the cancer. Williams underwent 30 rounds of radiation. She recalls how exhausting it was to go to work, leave for a radiation treatment and go back to work, but she’s grateful she didn’t have to go far. 

“I’m very thankful I didn’t have to travel back and forth to Huntsville,” she said. 

Williams told her co-workers she would never leave unless a position came open at the Cancer Care Center. When it did, she applied and got the job. 

“Things kind of worked out,” she said. “I figure God put me here for a reason. I want to help whoever I can, maybe ease some of their fears. I want them to know we’ll always be here for them.”

Excellent patient care brought her back

Volunteer Angie Talton donned a pink smock and went to work at the Cancer Care Center in September. 

“I wanted to volunteer because of how good they treat patients here,” she said. 

She would know. Talton’s battle with breast cancer started in December 2014, on a normal day, she recalled. She planned to stop by Marshall South for a mammogram then head to Wal-Mart to buy groceries. Instead, after the mammographer finished one side and started on the other, she asked Talton to wait while she asked the radiologist whether more scans were needed of the right side. 

“I just knew,” Talton said. 

Talton was immediately sent for an ultrasound. She could see it then – a quarter-sized tumor in her right breast. It was too deep to feel, though. A biopsy two weeks later confirmed it was cancer, and a mastectomy was recommended. Talton wanted to wait until after Christmas. On Dec. 29, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy, which aims to remove all breast tissue that potentially could develop breast cancer. 

“It was not as traumatic as I thought it would be,” she said. “I had a peace from the beginning.”

Because the cancer had spread into her lymph nodes, Talton then had four rounds of chemotherapy in January, followed by 30 rounds of radiation. 

“That was the roughest part for me,” she remembers. “I cried. That was excruciating pain.”

Oncologist Tom Payne and his staff did all they could to reduce discomfort and ease her suffering.

“They know how to help you get through it,” she said. “From the time you walk through the door all the way through, they help you. My family was more scared than I was. The staff helped them be at peace.”

Talton, 47, of Martling, was a preschool teacher but now takes care of her mother, who has COPD.  Talton and her husband, who works at Goodyear, raised two daughters and have six grandchildren. She now volunteers once a week at the Cancer Care Center. 

“If I can help one person smile each day, I’ve succeeded,” she said. 

A year later, health and hair returned

With her beaming face and almost shoulder-length hair, Angie Harris knows it’s hard to believe that one year ago she was bald and sick. 

“Last year at this time, I didn’t have any hair,” she said. “I can tell patients that one year ago I was in the same spot you’re in.”

That’s because the cancer survivor went from patient to employee at the Cancer Care Center, which she calls her “dream job.” While going through treatments there, she realized she would like to work with the people who took care of her. They offer patients a closeness and a “homey feeling,” she said. 

“I know that I’m making a difference,” said Harris, of Arab. “I’m actually helping people. This is definitely a dream job. I love working here.”

Harris’ cancer ordeal started in late 2015 when she noticed swelling in her underarm. She reported it to her doctor, who recommended a mammogram and an ultrasound. Tests showed a 1.7 centimeter tumor in her breast. 

Because of the history of breast cancer in her family, she opted for a double mastectomy. By the time she went into surgery in February, it had spread from her breast into her lymph nodes. 

Harris and her husband have four daughters - Ashley, MacKenzie, Bethany and Gracie - and one grandson, Grady. They pulled together during her treatments and tried to laugh when they could, like when they dyed her hair purple before it fell out. 

 “I feel a closeness to breast cancer patients,” she said. “I feel like I can give them hope because there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Pink smock and grandmotherly smile welcomes patients

The turmoil of having cancer, enduring treatments and being sick changed Wanda Maltbie’s life. Once she recovered, she found a way to help others on a similar journey. She does that every Thursday morning wearing a bright pink smock and a bright smile for everyone at the Marshall Cancer Care Center. 

“I know how lucky I was they found my cancer when they did,” said the 82-year-old. “It prompted me to volunteer. It gives people hope that I’m a patient too.”

When Maltbie decided to volunteer, she didn’t want to give her time just anywhere. Her medical issues were treated at Marshall Medical Centers and at Marshall Cancer Care Center. The way she was cared for there made her want to give back. 

“If I can talk to somebody and that brightens their day, that brightens my day, too,” she says. “I get more good out of it than they do. That’s how it works.”

Medication and treatments are very important but so is the empathy from a survivor, said Sparkman. 

“It is great encouragement to a newly diagnosed patient to learn that those caring for them have been where they are  . . . and survived,” she said. “These ladies are living proof that there can be fulfilling life after breast cancer.”