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The many faces of cancer

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The Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides, Now” includes the lyrics “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.”

When looking at cancer, it has multiple sides and faces. Theresia Blackwell has looked at cancer from the role of nurse, friend, grandmother, sister and wife. That experience has shaped her view and love of life and people.

Her first experience with cancer was as a nurse at Granville Medical Center in the Duke Oncology Clinic. She did not know it at the time but working there was helping to prepare her for what was to come.

Theresia found that clinic to be the most spiritual place she ever worked. She realized that often people are not physically healed of the disease process but she saw them grow spiritually as they grew to accept their personal situation and to share deep wisdom with those who were beginning their journey in cancer treatment.

The next experience was when her grandson, Malcolm, now 11, was diagnosed in March 2012 with acute lymphocytic leukemia. After treatment at Duke, he was declared clear of cancer on May 15, 2015, with 90% confidence of cure.

Next began Theresia’s experience as one of 12 siblings. Her oldest sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. She had radiation for the cancer and remains clear of breast cancer. However, in 2018 she was diagnosed with colon cancer.

She was first treated with chemotherapy via IV but that treatment had to be terminated due to complications. She is now on oral chemotherapy and her follow up continues and she is handling this treatment much better.

After that diagnosis, their brother, David, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was treated with radiation and now he has hormone injections. David is doing well and all his treatment has been at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Durham with doctors from Duke Medical Center.

Grandson Malcolm’s dad, Malcolm Sr., was diagnosed with carcinoid tumors in May 2015. A carcinoid tumor is a type of slow-growing cancer that can arise in several places throughout the body and usually begins in the digestive tract. His first symptoms were stomach pain which began when he was in his mid-40s.

He died Oct. 31, 2018.

The face of cancer that was the dearest and most painful to watch was that of Theresia’s husband, Robert Blackwell. A deputy with the Granville County Sheriff’s Department, the first symptoms of a problem appeared in late December 2017, and it was a continued, unintentional weight loss followed by weakness and then a decrease in appetite.

Being a health-conscious family, he had followed preventative health care, including a colonoscopy and endoscopy in the prior two years. During this time, Robert continued to work his regular assignment as bailiff in the Granville County court system.

In January 2018, Robert went to Duke Regional for a CT scan that revealed some liver nodules. This was followed by visits with multiple specialists and a diagnosis of anemia and GI studies and being followed closely by continued medical care of their family physician, Dr. Francine Chavis.

All of the studies were required because there could be no treatment until the origin of the cancer was discovered. It was determined that the origin was in the jejunum, a part of the small intestine. Once that was determined, a course of treatment could be planned.

There are moments in the treatment of cancer that always stand out in one’s memory. Theresia well remembers the day they went to Duke Raleigh for a visit with a liver specialist to review the CT scan and liver biopsy, which resulted in final diagnosis and prognosis.

Her memory is of two things: that the ride from Raleigh to Oxford was the longest ride ever and as they were coming through Creedmoor Robert told her to call Sheriff Brin Wilkins, his boss.

Once Sheriff Wilkins was on the phone with Robert, Theresia saw the only tears Robert ever shed as he talked with his boss and friend and reported what he had learned that day.

Theresia doesn’t talk a lot about the treatments, but she knows Robert lived his time with cancer as a man of valor, showing courage and bravery that inspired her and those who were around him, including friends from his law enforcement career who he had not seen in 20 years but came to visit when they heard of his illness.

She shares the strength they gained from her close family, including their children, Erica, Valerie and Jeffery, the love and support of the church and surrounding community members, the sheriff’s department, the Oxford Police Department where Robert had also worked, and the clergy of many congregations.

Special to both Theresia and Robert was that Terrica Boyd, a granddaughter, accompanied them on every trip to Duke. All of that support continues to this day. The grandchildren have wonderful memories of time with their GranPa and his teasing and loving nature.

Yes, there are many faces of cancer and many people are visited by a variety of them. It is easy to understand why Theresia, with her medical background, thinks it is important to follow good health practices to improve your chances of not being a face of cancer.

Theresia shared the point that all these experiences prove that knowledge is not always power when it involves people you love. You want each of them to be the one who defies all statistics and survives, and yet you get to rejoice with each one who has done that very thing.

Oh, yes, all who know Theresia see her as the epitome of joy as she faces each day with laughter, a good hug and a reminder that she loves you. Thus, you really must hear about the origin of the love affair between Officer Robert Lavette Blackwell and Theresia Pearl Harris Blackwell which all began over a gunshot wound at the Granville Medical Center Emergency Department. Cupid’s arrows were flying that evening as well as bullets. The story is best told by his friend and former boss, Brin Wilkins.


N. Annette P. Myers is a Granville County resident and supporter of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

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