Breast cancer survivors of a different kind: Those left behind

Published 4:41 pm Thursday, October 15, 2015


AMERICUS — Every year in October those brave breast cancer survivors who have beaten the odds are highlighted — some for good, some who have gotten a merciful temporary reprieve. Generally they are what are called “success stories,” stories of those who fought the good fight, and won. They are to be congratulated, cheered on, celebrated, for they inspire us all — if faced with this dread disease — to fight with all our might.
What happens though, when one you love fights, fights, fights, for a very long time, and then is finally taken from you? Well-known local educator Valerie Ryan Duff (now retired after serving as Sumter County Primary School principal) was willing to talk about her mother’s fight with breast cancer, and what it meant to the family.
Diagnosed at age 38, Coy Lou Ryan, Duff’s mother, fought breast cancer for 25 years. She enjoyed some good years with her family before the disease returned, and returned again. Treatment was different then, Duff points out. The first time breast cancer was found, Ryan underwent a radical mastectomy. Her children were teenagers, busy with their own lives, and probably did not know the toll that kind of surgery would take. Their mother got better and for a while, everything was fine. Then the cancer returned, and this time, Ryan went to Montgomery for treatment; she had reconstruction surgery following the cancer surgery, then a hysterectomy. The disease marched on. It had metastasized and was now in the bones and lung.
On Sept. 11, 2001 — a day the family will not forget but for additional, personal reasons  — Ryan went to Macon for the installation of a port so that she could begin more chemotherapy. She was being treated with tamoxifen and at the same time, fluid was being drained from her lungs. Duff  said, sadly, all this reduced her quality of life.
“But we kept thinking she would get better,” she said.
Finally, Duff’s father said, “We are not doing anymore chemo.”
When they mentioned hospice to Ryan, she said, “That’s for folks who have only six months to live!” Duff’s father was the caregiver until the end.
Duff said that her mother remained somewhat mobile until the last two or three weeks of her life.
“Her mind stayed very clear,” Duff said. “I would go to her house to play Scrabble with her,” and give her father a break. Her lungs were deteriorating and her breathing became more difficult. She died on Jan. 21, 2003, at the age of 63.
Duff told of their last Christmas together — how her mother loved to entertain, to present a lovely table. Duff  was setting the table, putting plates around, when her mother came in and placed a thumb between the plate and the edge of the table.
“You know you’re supposed to leave an inch between the rim of the plate and the table’s edge,” she told her daughter. She never lost her sense of style and grace.
In the days that followed her mother’s death, Duff was surprised to learn that her father wanted the house cleared right away. She could understand that he would want all the hospital equipment removed, but he wanted more, and she said this was painful. Everyone deals with grief differently: Some never let go of any personal belongings of the loved one who is gone, while others “clean up” right away. It is not that one thing is right and the other wrong. It is simply that every person deals with grief in his/her own peculiar ways and the prudent thing may be simply to support the decision. Duff says she came to understand this, over time.
In the 12 years since she lost her mother, Duff and her siblings have coped in several ways. They found a piece of art their mother had created and entitled “Welcome to Heaven,” showing someone — they assume it represents Coy Lou Ryan — arriving at what appears to be a glorious place, where others wait to greet her. They are waving — the one arriving and the ones who are there with welcome. Duff is a quilter, so in order for her and her sister to each have a copy of their mother’s work, Duff reproduced the painting in quilting form. She smiled as she recalled her mother saying once “I’m going to be a size six when I get to heaven!” Duff also reproduced a quilted Scrabble board, showing her mother’s name in bold letters, with other family-related words all across the puzzle.
Duff has used her gift in other ways, too. She has made quilts for the grandchildren, using satin that she rescued from her mother’s gowns and integrating it among the squares made from other materials. She wants every child to have something that was their grandmother’s, even if they never knew her. As their parents tell them the story of Coy Lou Ryan, of her beauty and elegance, of her strength and courage throughout her long battle with cancer, they will come to know her, and the family will continue adding to the story from year to year.
Duff said that six years following her mother’s death, her father reconnected with an old friend from high school, and that has filled an emptiness in his life.
“There’s only so much a child can do,” to try to fill the terrible void that is left when a partner dies, she said, and she knew her father had been lonely. So she is thankful for his new-found happiness. Duff and her husband are enjoying a life of retirement, slowing the pace only a little, and active with family and friends. They enjoy their children and grandchildren and know that life has given them much to celebrate.
There are cancer survivors — those who have had the disease, fought it, and won. And there are other survivors — those who have lost loved ones to the disease, yet survive to mourn the loss, celebrate the life of the one now gone, and who, 12 years later, can call up that face as if it just walked out the door.

Quilts that Valerie Duff has made, using pieces cut from her mother's satin gowns, incorporated among other quilting materials.

Quilts that Valerie Duff has made, using pieces cut from her mother’s satin gowns, incorporated among other quilting materials.

Coy Lou Ryan

Coy Lou Ryan

Valerie Duff's Scrabble board with her mother's name spelled out.

Valerie Duff’s Scrabble board with her mother’s name spelled out.

Valerie Duff reproduced a painting, 'Welcome to Heaven' by her mother Coy Lou Ryan as a quilt.

Valerie Duff reproduced a painting, ‘Welcome to Heaven’ by her mother Coy Lou Ryan as a quilt.