Joann Sexton is a generous person who always takes time to encourage others. That’s why she’s so grateful for those who empowered her during her battle with two cancers from which she is now in remission.
The Bamberg resident had worked a decade with the Bamberg County Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society’s signature fundraising event, before even finding out she had had the same condition whose survivors she was already supporting.
‘There’s a reason to fight’
“I was team captain for my job for many years. In 2005 I was voted in as event chairperson for the Bamberg County Relay for Life. We raised $125,000 that year, but in 2009 I was doing my weekly breast exam and found two lumps,” Sexton said.
That’s when things changed for the 65-year old.
“Many times I would have lumps and get them removed because they were benign, but this time it was cancer. I got treatment in Columbia at The Cancer Center at South Carolina Oncology Associates. They saved my life and took very good care of me,” Sexton said.
She recalled the time she was first diagnosed with breast cancer at the Bamberg County Hospital.
“When I found out it was cancer, I was in so much pain. I would pray and tell God, ‘Lord I trust you anyway.' I told him, ‘There’s nothing going to stop me from trusting you,’” said Sexton, a 10-year breast cancer survivor.
It was her abiding faith in God that would help her through the next phase of her journey.
“On July 2, 2019, I was told I had colon cancer. I was operated on July 9 and in very little time I was at the Mabry Center for Cancer Care (in Orangeburg). I had chemo. I was taken care of real well. I was loved,” Sexton said.
She recalled having felt very tired before her colon cancer, a symptom she shared with her doctor at her local family physician office in Bamberg.
“I keep telling her, ‘I feel real tired. I can’t hardly go sometime.’ She started checking my blood and said, ‘Joann, go back and let them check your blood.’ So I went back to Columbia to get my blood checked. They gave me pints of iron but saw that wasn’t building it.
“So when the doctor in Columbia told me, ‘Joann, you need to get a colonoscopy,’ I wanted to hear what my little doctor in Bamberg had to say. I asked if she could help me find someone who could help me here,” said Sexton, who underwent surgery for her colon cancer in Orangeburg on July 9.
She said her surgeon had wanted to perform the potentially risky surgery on July 6, but that was not an option for her.
“The doctor told me, ‘Joann, we’re going to have to do it real fast. When I saw the (tumor), it’s real big, and I want to operate on you as soon as possible.’ They’ll tell you the truth about how you might not survive, but I told him, ‘No, my birthday is on July 7, and I want to be alive for my birthday,’” Sexton said.
What was her reaction when she found out she had colon cancer following her battle with breast cancer?
“I knew it was bad, but I refuse to give up this fight. I knew I won that time. So I said, ‘I’m going to win again.’ That’s the attitude I had, and that attitude brings a lot of people with me.
“I tell them, ‘Come on, we’re going to fight this. We’re going to win this.’ They say, ‘Joann, you survived that thing two times.’ You can’t wait until the end of the battle, you’ve got to fight at the beginning of the battle,” Sexton said.
She said her participation in Relay for Life exemplified not only her heart for service, but a desire to uplift others in whatever they may be going through or have gone through.
“I care so much about people. I want everybody to survive everything. I’m just one of those people. When I would hear that bell ring at these centers, it would ring all in my soul. I would cheer them on. I would be so happy,” Sexton said.
She rang the bell signaling the end of her cancer treatments at both The Cancer Center at South Carolina Oncology Associates and the Mabry Cancer Center.
“Even though I know that I’m not going to survive them all, there’s a reason to fight. The third time that I went up there, the doctor me, ‘Joann, I might not save you,’ but he did. He told me that both of my breasts would have to be cut off, and that never happened,” she said.
Sexton rang the bell at Mabry Cancer Center on Feb. 6, accompanied by her supportive nephew, James Robert Sexton.
“He is always there when I ring the bell. I was so happy. He’s there every time. When I was in Columbia, he was there when I rang the bell up there,” she said.
‘I want them to have hope’
Sexton said her strong immune system has helped her in her fight against cancer.
“Even at the (Mabry) Cancer Center, my immune system stayed up. My hair didn’t fall out. I always liked to cover it up because didn’t want the other people to see it. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted them to always have hope, not worry about what’s going on and just try to care of themselves,” Sexton said.
“I want everybody to survive this thing. We know that everybody is not going to survive it, but I want them to have all the hope that they can. I always wore a jersey. I wanted people to ask me, ‘Joanne, what kind of jersey are you going to wear this time?’ I’d say, ‘What kind do you want me to wear?’ If I had that jersey, I would put it on for them because I’m on everybody’s team,” she said.
She said she appreciated the love and care she received from a special nurse named Kayla while at the Mabry Cancer Center.
“That’s what I want people to understand. You might not survive it all, but great service is still here. I wouldn’t trade Kayla for nobody,” said Sexton, who also had the support of family, neighbors and local community members.
Her sister-in-law, Gloria Johnson, was her caregiver, but her neighbors also chipped in to help.
“My neighbors would come and chop wood for me because I have a fireplace. The little guy down the road would say, ‘Joann, can I help you?’ The little guy had a little white truck, and I know that man drove five miles an hour because one day he went to town for me.
“When he came back from town, he had an 18-wheeler behind him and four cars, but everybody knows him. They say, ‘Don’t get behind him!’” she said, laughing.
“I even would have people who owned restaurants give me food. I had the big churches in Bamberg come out and bring me baskets. Sometimes I cry about this right now, but one time my water went out and I didn’t have money to pay for it.
“This guy came out here and worked on my water about eight hours until he got my water back up. He said, ‘Joann, I don’t care whatever you have. You don’t have to give me nothing because you have been so good to me,’” Sexton said.
She recalled the generosity of her friend, Shirlan Lane, who would sit with her during her chemotherapy treatments. It was Sexton who encouraged Lane to get a mammogram, which would lead to the uncovering of her own breast cancer.
“I tell everyone to get checked. She’s now almost finished with her treatment. I was her sister’s maid of honor in her wedding in 2006. Her sister died with breast cancer in 2007. My mother also died with breast cancer in 1994.
“So this is very personal for me. I have a saying that cancer is our enemy. Everyone has lost someone to this enemy. I refuse to give up this fight. I am praying for a cure,” Sexton said.
‘God has been really good to me’
Sexton says she knows God has a plan for her life, especially when she recalls the death of acclaimed actor and South Carolina native Chadwick Boseman, who died this year of colon cancer at the age of 43.
“I had the same cancer and was in the same stage, and I am still alive. God has been really good to me,” she said.
Sexton said she will likely spend a lot of time making masks for individuals to wear during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have every plan for my life going forward. Right now I’m a little anemic, but I know the doctor’s going to take care of that. The chemo is just about gone out of my system. Everything is going to be renewed, and I’m going to try to make masks and sew and stuff to help my family and other people,” she said.
“God let me live to help other people. My heart is in the right place, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”
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