An Undaunted Spirit

For a genuine glimpse into LaTonya George’s soul — the one breast cancer tried to break — it’s better to use your ears than your eyes.Everything there is to know about the strength of this 30-year-old single mother, dependable employee, nursing school graduate and survivor is neatly surmised in her 20-or-so-second voicemail greeting.

Like most, it begins with the standard apology for not answering. Nothing unique. Then, however, George takes a slight detour, extending an invitation to leave a message ONLY if you intend to bring positivity into her already full life. Those looking to dump an audio dark cloud on George’s phone? Don’t even bother.

“I just tell them to hang up,” she further explains. “I can’t take your misery and make it my company.”

George hopes this doesn’t come off as flippant, because, trust her, she’d be the last person to downplay the severity of breast cancer, but when doctors diagnosed her roughly a year ago, she took the same approach to the disease as she does to downer dialers — neither are welcomed. As the attention of the public once again turns to breast cancer this October, and everything from fashion accessories to football cleats are painted pink, George is fresh off her second reconstruction surgery and is quick to tell anyone who asks that she’s cancer free.

In recognition of her attitude — equal doses optimistic and feisty during treatment — the Acadiana affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation named George its 2016 Survivor Mother of The Year for the manner in which she handled cancer and her kids (Johneisha, Johntasian and Terrinashia) at the same time.

“I didn’t shy away from what I had,” George says. “My daughters knew the situation. But they also knew Momma was going to overcome this. And I wanted them to know that. And then from that, I wanted them to know that when someone says, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ just know they’re wrong. Think back to what your Momma could have done. She could have quit. But she didn’t. She was strong.”

That’s not to say there weren’t weak moments.

George’s journey began without ceremony. She, along with her kids, lay in bed one June 2015 evening watching TV when George scratched an itch on her chest. She paused, and then touched again. Underneath her fingertip, George felt a mass. Seconds earlier, George’s concerns centered on her “daily routine” — finishing nursing school at Delta College in Lafayette, figuring out how to occupy her kids now that school was out, and what to cook for dinner the next night.

In an instant, that all changed.

“I started crying,” she says, “because I knew what it was.”

Medical professionals, though, weren’t so sure initially.

On June 18, 2015, George underwent an ultrasound. During the screening, radiologists saw no indication of cancer, but because of George’s family health history, medical officials fast-forwarded a follow-up exam for three months later instead of the standard six months. Between appointments, George noticed that the nodule seemed to be getting bigger, protruding out when she examined it in the mirror while raising her arm.

After another ultrasound and two biopsies, George was diagnosed with stage 2 ductal carcinoma in situ (the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast) in September 2015. During the mastectomy, surgeons discovered another mass growing toward the breast bone behind the detected mass — a sign the cancer was set to spread.

That happened on a Wednesday. She was released from the hospital on Thursday. That Friday, George went to work.

The first coworker to spot George said, “You’re really here?”

George replied, “Where else do you want me to be?”

Cancer couldn’t make life stand still. George wouldn’t allow it.

School continued, uninterrupted as well. On Oct. 22, 2015, George graduated from nursing school. A few weeks later, she underwent her initial chemotherapy session — a wicked one-two punch of Adriamycin (appropriately nicknamed “red devil”) and Cytoxan that was administered biweekly for months. In time, her hair fell out.   

“I threw up water — that’s how bad it was,” she says. “I’d leave out the house, grab an apple from the icebox, take a bite, and by the time I made it to my car it was coming up. Chemo is like you’ve been drinking booze for a whole week straight and you got alcohol poisoning. It’s the worst feeling in the world. It doesn’t back down. But neither did I and neither do a lot of other people like me.”

George worked to avoid dropping massive amounts of weight despite the nauseating side effects of chemo, choosing to eat as many calories as possible during “off weeks,” so she’d be healthy enough for reconstruction surgery down the line. Even in the midst of the harshest portions of treatment, George kept looking forward to a future she was certain to see. Friends have called her an inspiration. George shrugs it off.

“I overpowered it,” she says of cancer. “I had a choice: let it get me, or I’m going to get it. Even on chemo weeks, I’d still go to work and still be myself. I couldn’t let it get to me, because at the end of the day, I still had three children. There was no one coming to say, ‘Stay home. Don’t work. I’ll pay the bills.’ No, I still had to fight and I still had to live. Cancer makes you battle. This was my battle.”

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