State hospital team lifts up survivors, holds tight to memories of lost co-workers

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Breast cancer is deeply personal for the staff of North Mississippi State Hospital.
They celebrate the survival of Sommer Armstrong and Alda Price, and remember with love Linda Parker and Lisa Newsom Smith, who were both Ecru natives who lived in Houston at the time of their deaths.
“North Mississippi State Hospital watched helplessly while breast cancer took two of our own,” said Armstrong, a 7-year survivor who worked in the same department with Smith and Parker. “We are now their voice, continuing the fight for their honor.”
Their colleagues have been so supportive as they’ve fought breast cancer, Price and Armstrong agreed.
“I tell everyone that’s how I got through it – my family and the support here,” said Price, who was diagnosed nearly two years ago.
Participating in the Komen North Mississippi Race for the Cure has been tradition for the staff, who consider themselves family, because it gives them the opportunity to help regional breast cancer awareness programs and national research efforts. Since 2004, the employees have contributed more than $5,000 to the race.
Case of contradictions
Armstrong’s experience with breast cancer is a study in contradictions. She was diagnosed at the age of 28, and she went to her doctor because her breast hurt. Typically breast cancer isn’t painful, but in Armstrong’s case, it was.
“‘If it hurts, it’s not cancer’ is a huge misconception,’” said Armstrong, who is a native of Houston, but now lives in the Pratts community in Lee County.
Initially, the medical team suspected a cyst, perhaps aggravated by too much caffeine. But they sent Armstrong for a mammogram to get a closer look.
“The doctor came into the room and told me, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not a cyst,’” Armstrong said.
From there, Armstrong ran the full gamut of treatment – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
But Armstrong had an amazing group of co-workers in her corner, particularly Parker and Smith, who were battling metastatic disease when Armstrong was diagnosed.
“We would trade scarves,” because they had all lost hair from chemotherapy,” she remembered.
Parker and Newsom inspired Armstrong to keep fighting even as they were getting sicker.
“I kept thinking, ‘how are they going to get through it?’” Armstrong said. “I was amazed how they had the strength to come to work.”
Parker died in September 2008; Smith in early 2010. Their deaths reinforce the reality that even though more women are beating back breast cancer, not everyone makes it.
“It was terrifying,” Price said.
“It still is,” Armstrong said.
“You know it could reoccur,” Price added.
Surprise
Price, 63, of Verona, was diagnosed in December 2009. Her annual mammogram turned up a suspicious spot in June, and doctors had her come back for another look in December.
“In December, it was obvious; they did a biopsy immediately,” Price said.
The diagnosis threw Price for a loop.
“I had been involved,” with the hospital’s Race for the Cure team, Price said, “but I never thought I would end up with cancer because there’s no history in my family.”
Last year, Price had to take a break from the Race for the Cure because it was so fresh. Now she’s ready to speak out, and she draws inspiration from Armstrong, Parker and Smith.
“Their brave fight for life and concern for other people up to the end moves me and our team to participate as fully as possible – financially, emotionally and spiritually to help find a cure for cancer,” Price said.
michaela.morris@journalinc.com