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Cherry Ward Sings, Rows and Dances Toward Recovery

Working as a college mathematics and teacher education instructor left Cherry Ward with little free time. That all changed when she and her husband of 23 years, Lance, retired and moved to the shores of Lake Wedowee in 2012.

First, Ward joined the women’s chorus where she befriended a fellow singer who belonged to a local kayak group. The 62-year-old retiree decided she’d give it a try, too, and soon she mastered the weekly miles-long kayak trips.

“We’re called the ‘Yakity-Yakers’ because we talk so much,” said Ward. “Our voices carry from the water so people on their porches can hear us coming.”Wedowee resident and cancer survivor Cherry Ward with friends

As if singing and kayaking weren’t enough to keep her busy, she unintentionally stumbled into a line dancing class. She stopped by to pick up minutes from the secretary of a community club, who taught line dancing in nearby Woodland, Ala.

“I enjoy music but had never really danced,” said Ward. “I liked the way the precision movements and the music came together. I stayed for her class that day and just fell in love with line dancing.”

She was so in love with line dancing that when the class instructor quit two years later she took the lead. She moved the class to Wedowee and now teaches about 20 people every Tuesday.

The energetic Ward was thoroughly enjoying her active retirement, until life threw her a curve on Friday, April 1, 2016. That morning she felt a lump under her left arm as she was getting out of bed.

“I called Tanner Primary Care of Wedowee, and they immediately scheduled me for a diagnostic mammogram at the main campus in Carrollton three days later,” she said, adding that the staff’s response to her concern was personal and fast. “I had mammograms at Tanner before, so I was in their system. I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”

The mammogram confirmed a suspicious spot, and Ward saw Raul G. Zunzunegui, MD, a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast specialist who is board-certified in surgery and a member of the Tanner Cancer Care team. He performed a biopsy on April 18.

“We found that the cancer was triple-negative — that is, Ms. Ward was negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, or HER2 receptors,” said Dr. Zunzunegui. “Having that information helped us determine the treatment that would be the most effective.”

Just over three weeks later, Ward had a lumpectomy and three lymph nodes removed to determine if the cancer was in the nodes. Dr. Zunzunegui called Ward on Friday, May 13, to break the news that it was in the nodes, making it Stage 2 breast cancer.

“He was phenomenal and explained everything to me,” she said, adding that an aunt and cousin both had breast cancer but neither was triple negative.

Ward had the first of eight chemotherapy treatments on June 8, finishing the regime September 14. Radiation therapy began shortly after and should be complete by the end of November.

Cherry Ward line dancing with friends“Early detection is essential with any type of cancer, and Ms. Ward was great about being proactive and calling when she found a lump. By waiting, she would’ve risked giving the cancer more time to spread,” said Dr. Zunzunegui. “It takes a lot of courage to call when you think there’s a problem, but it’s so important.”

“I was fortunate because I didn’t have nausea, a common side effect of chemo. I did lose my hair and had fatigue, and while I didn’t stay in bed, I did learn to do a lot more sitting,” Ward recalled, who continued to go to line dancing sporting a stylish hat to cover her head. “By the third treatment I was only calling the steps and not dancing, but it was still uplifting to see the ladies. One day, they all showed up in hats to support me!”

Ward received a different type of support from Tanner.

“I really think Tanner is the best healthcare anywhere,” she said. “They prepared me for the big things and gave me little tips to manage the side effects. They are always so efficient with my appointments and went out of their way when I had some complications.”

She especially liked her Breast Health Patient Navigator, a nurse who helped her navigate treatment as an on-going, consistent point of contact.

“The patient navigator united everything that was going on between the different doctors and made sure I understood what was going to happen,” said Ward. “She would ask how I was feeling, and I would say ‘fine’ but she’d break down the wall I put up and help me face the reality of my situation.”

The situation was made more bearable when Ward talked with other women who had battled breast cancer, learning from their first-hand experience. She also credits her husband Lance’s ongoing support through what she calls the good, bad and ugly. Her line dancing, chorus and kayaking friends along with others were very supportive, which she says is an important part of managing treatment.

“I couldn’t believe that people cared that much,” she said.

Ward said the hardest thing for her has been the lack of energy to do the things she loves. Even though she’s able to be productive and somewhat normal at home, she has had to slow down dramatically. Yet, she remains positive that the energy and fun activities are coming back.

“There are things in life that you don’t have control over and you might as well just dance — line dance that is!” she said.