Third cancer diagnosis inspires Piedmont native to keep fighting
by Eddie Burkhalter
Oct 07, 2012 | 4777 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Venecia Butler, in center, holds hands with her son Nathan and daughter Chelsea as they join in Saturday's walk around downtown Piedmont in honor of cancer survivors and those who have died from the disease. (Anniston Star photo by Eddie Burkhalter)
Venecia Butler, in center, holds hands with her son Nathan and daughter Chelsea as they join in Saturday's walk around downtown Piedmont in honor of cancer survivors and those who have died from the disease. (Anniston Star photo by Eddie Burkhalter)
PIEDMONT — By Saturday morning, all her friends and family knew. Venecia Butler — a two-time breast cancer survivor — had been diagnosed with cancer again. The Solid Rock Café in Piedmont was filled Saturday with those friends and supporters, all attending a fundraiser and to hear Butler speak about the disease that touches so many lives.

Butler, 48, had kept her discovery of another lump in her chest to herself. The Piedmont native found it two weeks before the fundraiser — which had been planned for months — and six years after her first cancer diagnosis.

Butler kept it to herself when she and friends and family members sat down with a reporter in late September to talk about the disease that tried to kill her twice, and how she managed to thrive through humor and downright “hard-headedness” as she puts it.

She wanted to know for sure before she told anyone about the lump. Her family and friends had been through enough already, Butler said.

In February of 2006 Butler found a knot in her breast. A biopsy showed that she had an aggressive type of cancer which had spread into her lymph nodes.

As she tells it today, it’s not something she recommends, but Butler tempted God once after her first diagnosis. She sat in a metal chair in the middle of a thunderstorm and told God she was going to sit there for 10 minutes and to just strike her down because “I wasn’t going to take chemotherapy,” she said.

After 10 minutes and two seconds Butler decided chemo would be just fine.

“My little boy asked me if I was going to die, and that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to answer,” Butler said. “I told him I’m going to do my best not to. That’s one thing about teaching them how to live, is to teach them how to go through struggles.”

Butler rallied a team of friends, found doctors and nurses that knew what to do and stayed positive. Most importantly she said she found ways to laugh, and made others laugh.

Bound together

Butler and her friends aren’t new to tragedy. A friend, Lisa Lang, died just three weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia. A group trip of close friends traveled to Lang’s memorial in Cullman. Those friends would be there for Butler after she got her first cancer diagnosis two weeks after returning from Cullman.

“It was God bringing people in my life to help me, because I needed them,” Butler said. “We call ourselves the Ya-Ya’s.”

The Ya-Ya’s sell T-shirts with pink ribbons and the word “crap” printed across the front. A teacher friend told a story about a young student who used the word in class all too often, and the friends adopted the word as a perfect way of announcing less than positive news. The Ya-Ya’s laugh a lot. It’s good for everyone, Butler said.

Butler underwent a mastectomy to remove her breast, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Five years later she felt a knot in her other breast. A doctor told her it was likely nothing, but Butler felt an urge to pursue it.

A mammogram showed that Butler had a new, similarly aggressive cancer. She texted a message to her friends. “Just been diagnosed with cancer again. Crap,” Butler wrote.

“I was cocky, because I had done so well the first time,” Butler said, but the second round of treatments was tough. “I felt like I had cancer for the first time again.”

The Pink Ladies Auxiliary at Regional Medical Center provided Butler with money for medicine at a critical point — her insurance covered the cost but required a large up-front payment — and so Butler decided to repay the favor by donating a portion of Saturday’s proceeds to the Pink Lady organization.

Butler had another mastectomy to remove her other breast. Her last chemotherapy treatment was in January of 2012. Going through cancer twice taught Butler to cherish each moment, she said.

“I saw people that would show up for cancer treatment one Wednesday and not be there three weeks later, so I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” Butler said. “People just don’t live twice through cancer without a purpose.”

Touching lives

Butler said her purpose — made clear to her by God — is to write and to speak, and that’s what she’s been doing ever since. She speaks about living through cancer to women’s groups and to church youth groups. She stresses the importance of self-exams, and to trust instincts and get second opinions. Butler tells them to find work that fulfills them, to cherish every single day and to always try to touch someone’s life.

She’s working on a book, using journals she kept throughout her treatments. In true form, the book will be funny, Butler said, because it’s important to make people laugh. The book will be titled “I Had to Get a Couple Things Off my Chest.”

“If you can laugh at it it’s like you’re winning,” Butler said. “…Most people think it’s serious, and you can’t laugh at it. But doing stuff like that made me feel like, like it wasn’t going to get me. I was telling it, I’m going to win.”

She also likes to work with cancer patients and make them laugh like the real-life doctor made famous in the movie “Patch Adams,” Butler said. And she’ll continue to speak to groups when asked.

Prior to her speech Saturday at the Solid Rock Café, Butler asked all the women in attendance who are going through or have survived breast cancer to stand. More than a dozen women stood. Among them was Summer Phelps, a nurse practitioner who was diagnosed with breast cancer in September.

Phelps started chemotherapy treatment in late September, and said she was moved by hearing Butler speak.

“It makes you think about life, and about things that don’t matter. I’ve worked 50 and 60 hours every week, and now I’m down to 20, and that’s just fine,” Phelps said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 200,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Tuesday, Butler will undergo tests to discover the extent of her cancer. The news hit her group hard. “Shock and awe” was their reaction, Butler said, but “they know I’m going to fight, and will be right there with me fighting it.”

“Evidently there’s someone in chemo going through a rougher time and needs me,” Butler said. “My whole purpose was not to waste a day. Now my purpose is not to waste a minute. This life is short and so uncertain. I don’t care where I’m at, I’m going to talk with someone. I’m going to smile at someone. Touch someone’s life every day.”

Star staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563 or on Twitter @burkhalter_star

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