She sat waiting for the results to come back, thinking she didn't have time to be sick now, especially considering the two young boys she needed to raise.
A single mother, Denise Butts, of Brazil, said that's what went through her mind nearly a year ago, as her doctor explained the nature of the colorectal cancer which was threatening her life.
"Start living today, because you don't know what's going to happen within a year," she remembers surgeon Mark Lynch, chief of staff at Union Hospital in Terre Haute, advising June 21, 2002. Local Gasologist James Stephens refered Butts, now 39, to the specialist. Stephens had performed a colonoscopy just days earlier. That's when the three-inch mass was first discovered wrapped around her rectum.
Once discovered, and after a series of tests, she got both the good news and the bad news. She had colorectal cancer, but it was contained. It hadn't spread to her lymph nodes, which would have been deadly. She was lucky and shocked. She wasn't old enough to have colon cancer, was she? After all, it's the second leading cancer killer in the United States. Her case is unusual. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, men and women aged 50 and older are at almost equal risk of developing colorectal cancer. And, she lacks a family history of any type of cancer.
"The first thing that went through my mind was the kids -- what do I do?" she asked herself at the time, thinking first of Andrew, now 10, and Austin, now 7. The divorced mother was originally from Kentucky, and she lacked immediate family in Indiana. But her best friend, Connie Kimbel, would remain by her side throughout the ordeal and her family would be at the hospital while she underwent the sugery to remove the mass.
Andrew and Austin were looking out for her. A teacher at their school, Eastside Elementary, Mindy Holley, had died from cancer just before Butts' diagnosis and that made it more real for the boys when the disease hit home. They thought if a teacher they knew could die, then so could their mother. This was real.
"I could have lost my mom," Andrew reflected. "She had a 25 percent chance to live, but look at her now -- she's here." Austin agreed, but said he barely remembers all the details. They are both relieved she fought the odds.
After a game of basketball against her sons at their home recently, Butts said her life has hardly changed. She admits she gets a little edgy as the anniversary of her diagnosis approaches. She'll undergo more screening each year and continue chemotherapy to be on the safe side. But the changes in her routine are minimal. She continues to work full time as a customer service representative at the Sony Corporation in Terre Haute.
She had two feet of colon removed and no longer has a rectum. She'll have a colostomy bag the rest of her life.You wouldn't know it if she didn't tell you. She says her energy level has dropped due to the chemo treatments, but her peppy, smiling personality makes you wonder. Her optimism makes all the difference from day to day. With strong faith and a positive attitude, she is convinced God can help anyone through any circumstance. Her cousin, Melinda Staten, of Louisville, dedicated an inspiration CD to Butts for her miraculous recovery. Butts thinks the CD, containing various Scriptures from the Bible, can benefit anyone going through trying times. For a copy, contact Butts for ordering information at 443-6001.
"Get checked out," she stessed to others who are experiencing symptoms related to cancer. The pain and bleeding she witnessed for three months led her to get examined. Early detection can mean the difference between life and death.
"Don't ever say you won't have cancer at a young age, because I'm proof that you can," she said.
She thanks the Brazil community for their ongoing support, especially Larry and Emma Harrison and family; Mark and Trisha Butts; Dr. James Stephens and staff; the Clay County Youth League; Jim and Karne Douglas and Penny and Kevin Arney, just to name a few.
"When a crisis touches you, people who don't even know you can touch your life with their blessings," Butts said.
Over the course of the more than two weeks hospital stay, she received an overwhelming amount of cards and flowers that really helped to lift her spirits.
"It has changed my life," said Butts. "If I can help others, then I've succeeded," adding she's thankful to be around to watch her children grow up.
She and the boys will be participating in the annual Clay County Relay For Life May 3. Wabash Valley American Cancer Society community development director, Dawn Clinkenbeard, explained the nationwide relay is the American Cancer Society's biggest fundraiser.
"They call Denise a miracle patient," Clinkenbeard said. "She's absolutely on fire."