Clayton resident Denise Stokes knew she was beginning the fight of her life when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, but that was okay because she wasn't going to let cancer beat her.
With a history of breast cancer in her family, Stokes had been going to see Dover surgeon Dr. Wendy Newell for several years. Over time, Stokes formed a good relationship with Newell. So much so that when Stokes went to her appointment on Nov. 9, 2009 and Newell walked in the room in a quiet mood, Stokes automatically thought it was Newell who was sick.
"She looked at me and said something that was just awesome, 'You'll be okay because of your faith.' And I didn't say anything but I looked at her like 'How do you know?' I got off the table and looked at her and I said, 'Dr. Newell lets go kick some cancer butt.'"
Stokes had Stage I breast cancer. More specifically, she had tubular carcinoma. Instantly her life changed.
Stokes went through a series of MRIs, biopsies and tests before having surgery on Dec. 8, 2009. She had four chemotherapy treatments and 33 radiation treatments.
With two of the four chemotherapy treatments, Stokes had allergic reactions. Prior to her last chemo treatment, Stokes said the doctors had to put in a 'picc line,' which was something that not all of her family members agreed with because she wasn't in great shape. But none of this deterred Stokes; she was going to finish her treatment plan.
"When I had my first chemo treatment, I knew that I was in the battle of all battles. I was so determined, I was not going to lose," she said. "I come from fighters. I knew how to fight. I was like, 'You don't know me. I don't give up easily.'"
There were days of fatigue. Stokes even tells stories of her husband, Dess, cleaning her in the shower.
"I believe that that's the ultimate test, when a man takes care of you when you're down," she said.
One of Stokes' toughest days came when her daughter helped cut her hair off; it had started falling out after her first chemotherapy treatment. Stokes said losing every piece of the hair on her body felt as if her identity had been stripped. Another difficult aspect of living with cancer, Stokes said, was hiding her hurt to make others happy.
There have been some scares along the way, but Stokes and her family made it through. Stokes attributes her health to her support system of family and friends.
"I had a good support system. My husband, daughter and friends were all around to support me," Stokes said. "Without that support mechanism, I don't believe people can make it because they would give up."
For her husband Dess, it was never a question of whether or not he would support his wife. She had stuck by his side when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and he's been cancer free for 19 years.
"That's my wife. There was nothing for her to worry about or to be concerned about. Not her job or anything else. All she needed to know was that I was there and that I was going to take care of her," Dess said.
These days, Stokes is back at her job as an administrative specialist II at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. She's a mentor with the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition and is a member of the ministry at First Pilgrim Baptist Church in Camden. She hasn't let cancer stop her from living her life. As a matter of fact, Stokes graduated with her Master of Ministry in 2011 with a GPA of 3.98.
She said her experience changed her for the better and her goal is to get people to stop being afraid.
"When I was done this whole process, I felt beat up but grateful," Stokes said. "I learned a lot of lessons."
Email Jennifer Dailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.