Barely 35 years old at the time, Judy Tillery really didn’t think she would leave the hospital after surgery to remove a cancerous lump in her breast.
Then Judy Parrish, she had written letters to her children — in the interest of full disclosure, the eldest of which is the author of this piece — telling them what she needed them to know and what she expected they would become.
That was 30 years ago.
"I think that was the only depression I ever had," says Tillery. "I remember sitting on the side of the bed and writing letters to Aunt Glenna. I wrote you all letters that I wasn’t going to be here anymore (but) what I wanted you to do. I expected you to go to school, you stay together, and all this stuff.
"I just knew I was not coming out. For most people, that’s not a good way to go into surgery."
Credit comes from a higher power.
"I know that I would not be here if not for the Lord," says Tillery. "I had a praying family and church."
Now approaching the 30 year anniversary of being cancer free, Tillery is one of the two co-honorary chairpersons of the 2014 South Logan County Relay For Life.
Completely unable to bear the financial burden of cancer but living with a randomly appearing and disappearing lump, Tillery, once the lump appeared larger than ever, at the advice of a friend, Ruby McGee, finally scheduled an appointment with a Dr. Landrum in Fort Smith.
Even that had to wait until after her mother and sister from Ohio had left Arkansas unaware of the possibility of cancer.
"He did all my work in the office. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any insurance. Your dad had just went to work at the Hill (BHDC)," recalls Tillery.
Landrum did a biopsy and Tillery was told a couple days later of the ugly result.
"I was mad," she said. "He said Mrs. Parrish ‘you can cry if you want to.’ I said what good would it do to cry? I’ve got four kids at home and I’m going to die and you think crying’s going to fix it?" Tillery says. "He said, ‘You’re not going to die.’"
At first she refused to address the situation — there was the expense — but Landrum told Tillery to take care of any benefit program enrollment she could and he would handle what he could to ease the burden. He would fulfill his promise. The bills were bearable.
Tillery wasn’t convinced all would be well. And, with a comedy of errors fit for film, she underwent surgery. Landrum handled that too, or that was the plan.
"They lost me," says Tillery. "I went into the emergency room because he had everything done. All they had to do was take me to my room that he had reserved. They stuck me in an emergency room. They run x-ray, they did x-ray, they did all that over."
She tried to explain, but the providers proceeded with their tests. With the delays she lost her surgery slot.
"When they went to my room to get me I wasn’t there," she said.
Dr. Landrum was not happy and demanded the tests be removed from any bill.
All the while she was pondering whether she would lose both breasts — she didn’t — but still assuming it didn’t matter if she didn’t come out.
"By the time I got in there I was a physical, mental wreck. The last thing I remember was hearing the little anesthesiologist saying, ‘Honey I’m fixing to put you to sleep,’" said Tillery.
Incidentally, Tillery never got a bill for the anesthesiologist, apparently a favor procured by Landrum.
When she awoke in the hospital, her now late husband, Mickey, and her college freshman son were there. Tillery remembers her son leaving to go back to work in the hospital, a job he still doesn’t recall actually having.
Now awake, she made a decision to live.
"I knew when I left the house that day I was not coming back," said Tillery. "When I woke up, I thought, get out of my way, I’m here to stay — it’s not just you that goes through it, it’s your family."
Still, she also made a decision to leave the hospital a lot sooner than medically advisable to keep the bill to a minimum.
Initially, Landrum had Tillery scheduled for radiation and chemotherapy but "the next time he came back he said ‘I had sent your results off again. They looked so bad, but they’re giving you a clean bill of health. I’m not believing it.’ He made them check my lymph nodes twice.
"They (still) couldn’t find anything. The Lord just took care of me. He wasn’t done with me yet. (The Lord) said ‘I’ve got you this far, now go on."
She has. The mother of four through biology — Michelle Williams, Brucee Parrish and Melinnda McConnell — and a fifth by choice, Rusty Shigley, she is also a 24-time grandmother and six-time great-grandmother,
Although there would be no chemotherapy or radiation, because the surgery involved a skin graft — again, it was 1983 — she made multiple trips over months to Landrum to have one to two staples removed at a time. She saw Landrum for a year and again, there was never a bill.
Since the cancer was removed, Tillery says she has had a scare in the form of a cyst on her other breast.
Tillery also preaches do as I say, not as I do when it comes to cancer.
"It could have been worse. When you fool around with it and you know it’s there and don’t do anything about it …" said Tillery.
Tillery has been involved with Relay since its infancy. Before retiring as a cook at BHDC, she was a member of their team, she walks in the survivor lap most years and was Community National Bank’s survivor of the year just last year.
This year’s Relay is set for 6 p.m. Friday through 6 a.m. Saturday at Bearcat Stadium.