RICHMOND, Va. – Paula Hemphill’s job was to look at cells through a microscope and help diagnose cancer. She never imagined she would one day be on the other side of the microscope as a patient.
She and her husband Ken were enjoying busy careers when their lives were turned upside down in 2006 – Paula began experiencing a painful mass in her right breast.
“After all those years working in cancer diagnosis, and just being aware as a woman of breast cancer, I honestly didn’t anticipate my issue being breast cancer because it hurt so bad,” Hemphill said. “I didn’t have any history in my family, no high-risk factors.”
Her gynecologist prescribed an antibiotic and ordered a mammogram and ultrasound test – both came back negative – so he recommended a wait-and-see approach. But after 10 days, Hemphill insisted on seeing a surgeon, who diagnosed her with breast cancer. Because of her medical training, she was allowed to view her own cancer cells under a microscope.
“If I’d waited three months like my (gynecologist) told me to and then come back, my prognosis could have been a lot different,” Hemphill said. “But, because I insisted on seeing a surgeon … within six days, I had a mastectomy.”
Her children were stunned when Hemphill told them she had cancer. Kristina, one of Hemphill’s three daughters, said her mother “seemed so confident in the Lord and so full of faith that her outlook very much shaped the way that we responded to the news.” Hemphill’s chemo regimen left her exhausted and radiation caused uncomfortable burns. She lost her hair, including her eyebrows and eyelashes.
“Having a thankful heart is key to staying victorious in any journey like this,” said Paula Hemphill, a two-time breast cancer survivor who “pays it forward” by ministering to other cancer patients. Don’t go through the battle alone, she says; build a network of people who will offer love and support.
Julie Pierce, a breast cancer survivor and co-worker at the International Mission Board, where Hemphill had begun a new career as women’s missional strategist in 2004, offered advice on dealing with chemo and radiation. While Hemphill was going through treatment, Pierce called periodically to check on her.
“The Bible says comfort others with the comfort you have received. And Julie did that for me,” Hemphill recalled. “She told me what to expect with the chemo – she told me some things to do that would make the treatments easier.”
Pierce told Hemphill, then 56, to make sure the medical staff gave her a Popsicle or put ice in her mouth to prevent mouth sores from the chemotherapy. She also advised her to wear socks and gloves during radiation, which is administered in cold rooms.
Hemphill’s treatments ended in June 2010, and her oncologist spoke the words every cancer patient hopes to hear: “You will never have this cancer again.”
Thinking she was out of the woods, she went for her yearly mammogram that November and received startling news. She was diagnosed with breast cancer again – this time with a different cell type.
The second diagnosis was even more shocking than the first because she had opted for such aggressive treatment with the first cancer.
“Breast cancer and other cancers don’t have any rhyme or reason,” Hemphill said, noting that one in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. “You can’t ask the ‘why’ question. It’s not a productive question. You have to ask ‘what now?’”
Since both her cancers were fast-growing, Hemphill decided to have another mastectomy. “I’ve had two breast cancers,” she told her surgeon, “I don’t want to risk a third.”
Before she had surgery, Hemphill visited Pakistan, where it is estimated that 89 percent of women with breast cancer do not survive. She talked with doctors there about breast cancer awareness and shared the techniques Pierce had suggested. This was one of many opportunities she has had to tell her story.
“From the beginning,” her daughter Kristina said, “Mom saw the experience of having cancer as another way that she could connect with women and reach out to them with an understanding of their pain.”
Her husband Ken said his wife “spent a lot of time dealing with her issues on Facebook and talking with and encouraging our daughters in the midst of (her battle).”
While many women struggle with body issues following mastectomies, Hemphill credits her husband with helping her through any insecurities.
“There’s a huge step I think you have to take in dealing with your self-image in the same way as someone who may be disfigured in a fire or in an accident,” Hemphill said. “… My husband is a wonderful support and he has been, in large part, responsible for our success in dealing with this as a married couple….”
For his part, Ken Hemphill said he learned the most important thing he could do was listen. “It’s her body and she’s dealing with it in her own way,” he said. “Just let your spouse express her fears, concerns, hopes.” And share how you feel, he added. Now, more than ever, a woman needs reassurance that she is loved and still beautiful.
Following her second surgery, Paula prepared herself for the toll cancer treatments take, both physically and emotionally.
“I’ve had two times during all these treatments where I literally felt like I could die from the nausea and the fever … when you are literally so weak you can’t stand,” Hemphill said. “My husband would have to pick me up and put me in the bed or take me to the bathroom. I could not walk. That’s a miserable feeling.”
Keeping a sense of humor helps, Hemphill said. Her grandson was amazed one Sunday morning that her hair had miraculously grown in a matter of minutes.
“He had never seen my wig because it was so hot I didn’t wear it around the house,” Hemphill laughed. When they returned from church, she took off the wig and gave it to him to wear – much to his delight.
And who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? The place the Hemphills moved to from Nashville – Travelers Rest, S.C.
“Isn’t that a hoot? With all the traveling we do,” Hemphill said, “when we come home, we live in Travelers Rest.” She and Ken are members of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, N.C.
One of the biggest challenges for female cancer patients, Hemphill said, is taking the time to rest, something she has struggled with. She and her husband have been busy in ministry for 42 years, so she had never thought much about Sabbath rest. She’s been forced now to reflect about what rest does to heal, restore and revitalize.
“We live in a culture that expects us to be connected 24/7,” Hemphill said. “I’m learning how to turn (my Blackberry) off, go to bed and not feel guilty.”
Hemphill advises cancer patients to surround themselves with a network of people who can support them and offer unconditional love.
“One of the hardest things for me in this journey is, ‘How do people perceive me?’” said Hemphill, now 62. “I am forever a breast cancer survivor. It’s a natural entree to talk about the Lord – He’s been my healer and my shepherd.”