Led by Faith
With courage and optimism, WISH-TV’s Deanna Dewberry comes to peace with her third cancer diagnosis.
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It is WISH-TV news anchor Deanna Dewberry’s last chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.
She is dressed in bright pink jogging pants with a matching jacket. A knit hat with black braids attached, a handmade gift from a viewer, covers her bare scalp. She also is wearing a beautiful, bright presence as she makes her way down the hall of the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.
Her husband, Gary Mitchell, a soft-spoken man with kind eyes, is beside her. He has never missed a single step of this journey.
A dear friend, Tamakia Breland, also is joining them for these last hours of treatment. And Renee Larson, whom Deanna refers to as her “adopted daughter,” is patiently waiting near the infusion area while Deanna attended a doctor’s appointment. The two met four years ago at an Indiana Black Expo event. Renee, who studies journalism, asked to job shadow Deanna. And a friendship bloomed.
Because Renee lost her mother as a younger teen, she shyly grins and refers to Deanna as her mom.
“She just kinda became a part of our family,” Deanna says as she smiles at Renee, who has come to the hospital with music and a soft blanket decorated with peace signs.
Before entering the treatment area, Deanna comments on how chemotherapy has changed in the last 20 years.
Twice before, she has bravely faced and beat cancer — once at 21 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a second time at age 23, when she battled leukemia.
Now the chemotherapy experience is much more comfortable, in a homey environment, Deanna says. And great gains have been made to lessen patient bouts with nausea. “Twenty years ago, I was sick during chemo,” Deanna says with a grin as she points to a few snacks. “Now I eat while I’m getting chemotherapy.”
She makes her way down the hall to a circle of comfortable chairs, next to a fireplace. She reaches into a satchel and brings out a framed photograph of their son, Ethan. He’s wearing a mischievous grin in the photo, with a wad of daisies in his hand.
“I always bring his picture,” Deanna says. “He’s just a reminder of why we fight.”
Ethan is 9 years old and coping well with the family journey through cancer, Deanna says.
A couple of nurses walk past, smiling and congratulating her.
The chemotherapy ends today. A mastectomy will likely be scheduled this month. But the nurses don’t speak of it.
Today, like Deanna and the people who love her, the nurses want to celebrate the end of chemotherapy.
Coping with the changes
When she recently gathered with breast cancer survivors, the women touched her heart with open conversation about their personal body changes due to cancer, Deanna says.
A few of the women accompanied her to the restroom that day to privately show their reconstructed breasts. She points at a pink file, stuffed with research about mastectomy.
Her body is already changing, Deanna says.
Chemotherapy burns have left nasty blotches on her chest and back.
Her feet hurt.
Her hair is gone.
Soon, her breasts will be gone.
But she is accepting it — all of it — because she is still here with Gary, her husband of 13 years, and Ethan, who came into their hearts when he was a rough-and-tumble 16-month-old with a ferocious appetite that has never left him.
Last November, Deanna and Gary were awaiting the birth and adoption of a baby girl.
A couple of weeks into the month, Deanna found a lump during a self-breast exam. She underwent a biopsy and went home, convinced it was nothing to worry about.
Anxious to get going with pink décor in the extra bedroom for the baby girl they happily planned to adopt, Deanna brushed away the possibility of cancer.
On Friday, Nov. 12, 2010, late in the day when the newsroom was quietly awaiting the evening crew’s arrival, Deanna got the call. Test results concluded that she had breast cancer.
“I just started sobbing,” she says.
Stunned, this Emmy Award-winning journalist stumbled into the comforting arms of two female co-workers. “We just stood there in the middle of the newsroom and cried,” Deanna says. “I’m so thankful they were there. I can’t imagine getting that news alone.”
She does not recall breaking the news to Gary that day.
She describes herself as simply “numb,” from the first moments in the newsroom when the news was a shock, to the moment she found herself sitting alone in the family minivan with her beloved dog, Tipper, curled against her side.
“I don’t know why that was a place of peace for me, but it was,” Deanna says. “I’ve always seen that minivan as a symbol of all that I wanted to be — a wife and a mom.”
Somehow, Deanna found her footing.
She had been down this road twice before.
And she had been the victor, even when the odds were against her.
Deanna crawled out of the minivan and back into her life, deciding to take big steps through this next chapter. She decided she would not only do everything possible to save herself, she would advocate for other women along the way.
Sharing the story
While they adjusted to the diagnosis, Deanna and Gary also learned that the birth mother decided not to give up her baby girl for adoption.
Perhaps that loss was fate, Deanna says, since Gary already faced great responsibility and stress in caring for Ethan and his needs while also supporting his wife during a very demanding treatment regimen.
As she focused on learning what was ahead and how to cope, Deanna found herself rewinding often to the day she got that phone call while she was at work. Her thoughts drifted to a series of questions: What if she had been alone when she received that news? What about the fact that she learned on a Friday only that she did indeed have breast cancer but suffered the entire weekend not knowing what the next steps would be? Was there an actual protocol for breaking the news of cancer to patients? Did patients have a right to ask for a certain approach to hearing that kind of news?
Curious for answers, Deanna began to research her questions and concerns.
She began to share her experiences through Channel 8 segments called Deanna’s Discovery. She interviewed professionals, asking the questions for herself and for other cancer patients too.
When she lost her hair to chemo, Deanna yanked off her wig on air to bravely show her bald head.
Viewers responded positively. They sent colorful hats, caps with long strands of hair attached and blue Colts wigs to the station. They offered support on a Facebook page. They asked questions she might help answer. And they shared their own stories.
Deanna started blogging about her feelings and experiences.
She started showing other women that breast cancer wasn’t necessarily a showstopper.
She built a bridge between herself and the public, to teach, to inspire, to heal.
Knowing the stress that a serious illness can bring to a marriage, Deanna says she initially worried. But she learned quickly that they could weather the storm. Theirs is a marriage of balance. She’s the talker who never meets a stranger. Gary is the quiet guy, the thinker.
Both are calmed and led by their faith.
Deanna vividly remembers the first time she laid eyes on Gary.
A native Texan, this only child relocated to Little Rock, Ark., in the early 1990s for a news anchor position with KTHV. The day Deanna saw her future husband, she was walking her dog in the apartment complex where she lived.
“I looked up and saw him out there in the parking lot,” Deanna says with a laugh. “And I thought, Now that’s a tall drink of water right there.”
In a sneaky attempt to make a love connection, Deanna let her dog off its leash, knowing the dog would make a beeline for a friendly looking stranger. The rather staged meeting gave her an opportunity to offer her hand for an introduction as she pretended to retrieve her runaway canine.
What she did not know until much later was that Gary was dealing with devastating news that day. His mother was losing her battle with cancer.
Briefly meeting the attractive young woman definitely had an impact. “I knew there was just something about her,” Gary says with a sheepish grin. “Then a month or so later, I saw her on TV.”
Much later, he realized that at the same time he was preparing to say goodbye to the mom he adored, that energetic young woman with the playful eyes was sent directly into the spot where sadness had been.
Because of Deanna’s demanding schedule, a year passed before their paths crossed again. When they saw each other at a party for residents of the apartment complex, Deanna and Gary discovered they lived only a few doors away from each other. They also discovered a wonderful, immediate comfort with each other.
“We sat in the breezeway, drinking wine coolers and talking,” Deanna says.
A year and a half later, on Dec. 20, 1997, Gary proposed.
“She’s got the best heart of anybody,” Gary says as he smiles over at his wife. “She’s a child of God. She’s an angel.”
Together, they face breast cancer with a gentle courage.
When chemotherapy began to steal away her long hair, Gary shaved Deanna’s head while Ethan held the video camera. Those moments could be heartbreaking if they allowed it. Instead, the family made it just another fact of cancer; chemotherapy often leads to hair loss.
Though his mom and dad frequently offer him information about what’s going on with the breast cancer, Ethan’s only question so far has been, “How long will you have to wear that wig?”
She wants Ethan to feel safe, Deanna says.
She and Gary are committed to making his life and everything he loves as normal as possible. Ethan still plays baseball and attends martial arts classes. He still plays a few Wii games with his mom too, just as he did before she got breast cancer.
Like they want Ethan to keep living life, she and Gary keep moving too, Deanna says.
Deanna’s excitement about a nonprofit program called A Girl’s Gift, for example, has not faded during these months of treatment. Deanna serves as president, and her friend Tamakia is the treasurer for the program, now in its second year.
Offering unique educational programs for 30 to 40 teens, A Girl’s Gift offers 10 consecutive Saturday seminars about everything from body image, bullying behavior and healthy relationships, to information about making financial decisions, developing self-esteem, enhancing math and science skills and launching your own business.
“Our girls are absolutely fantastic,” Deanna says with a smile. “It’s absolutely worth all the hard work we put into it.”
In the wake of cancer
While receiving the last dose of chemotherapy, Deanna is quick to smile and laugh. She speaks honestly, with a dedicated intent to help other women by sharing her experiences.
But she is learning too, about herself.
With a career in television, lots of focus every day for years has been on her weight, her clothing, her looks.
But that’s such a tiny priority these days, it’s not even on the radar screen.
“I’ve learned that I’m not really as vain as I thought I was,” Deanna says with a giggle. “I’m at peace with all these changes. What’s important is that I’m going to be here for my husband and son. I’m gonna cry like a crazy black woman at his graduation. I’m going to talk to him about the girls he dates … ”
Sometimes when she is alone — stepping out of the shower, seeing the burn scars on her naked chest, awaiting the day her breasts are taken by this disease, Deanna admits she has thought to herself, This is scary.
But just as quickly, that fear is replaced by a new sweep of faith and courage, love and spunk.
“I’m gonna be here,” she says with a smile.