One night last fall, as Brownstown resident Sylvia Cox laid in bed contemplating her recent breast cancer diagnosis, she asked herself “What are you going to do?”
The question had nothing to do with how she planned to approach her cancer battle. That part was a foregone conclusion. She was going to fight, and she planned to survive. The question that kept Cox up that night was about her garden, which was her lifelong sanctuary, and more than ever at that point in time, her happy place and comfort zone.
“Gardening gives me peace and serenity,” said Cox, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan member for more than 30 years.
Cox said she was devastated when she received her stage II triple negative breast cancer diagnosis in September 2022 at the age of 59. The diagnosis came shortly after her annual mammogram, a screening she was careful to never miss.
“(I was) devastated, but with the doctors from Karmanos (Cancer Institute), they saw a bright circle,” Cox said. “It is treatable, if you follow the things that need to be done. For me, that involved 18 rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and 20 rounds of radiation therapy. The chemotherapy was the most frightening, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done … I thought having my son was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, labor and delivery, but it wasn’t.”
Gardening as a mental health tool
The answer to Cox’s “What are you going to do?” question in the fall of 2022 was to redesign her front garden in the shape of the pink breast cancer ribbon. She wondered whether she had the physical strength to get out and do what she loved most during an exhausting bout with chemo, but Cox is a fighter, and this fight within the fight was a worthy one.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to have all pink flowers, in memory of my mother and all the survivors,” Cox recalled. “Even the ones who did not survive who fought like I’m fighting now; it will be in memory.”
As she made this beautiful vision a beautiful reality in her front yard, she had to fight through the radiation-induced exhaustion.
“I think there’s a total of 400, 500 flowers all over,” said Cox. Always moving and grooving, as she likes to say, Cox embarked on a second gardening project during her breast cancer treatment. In early 2023, she enrolled in Michigan State University’s Master Gardener Program online.
“Michigan State sent me their stuff, it was via Zoom, and it was 10 weeks,” she said. “It was all about spiders and flies and worms and glass and types of flowers and trees and shrubs and soil. So, that kept me busy. That helped me feel good about what I was doing. It kept my mind off cancer.”
How Cox’s yearly mammogram helped save her life
Cox frequently escaped the mental woes of her cancer diagnosis through gardening, but she was diligent about her treatment schedule and appointments. She knocked out every round of chemo and radiation therapy, despite how physically grueling they were.
“There were days that I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. That I wasn’t going to make it,” Cox said. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink. But you just can’t give up. The medication that they give you is meant to kill the cancer cells, not you. Not your spirit. I’ve been on that porcelain floor after chemo many, many times, but I got up, and I never missed an appointment.”
On June 6, 10 days before her 60th birthday and nearly 10 months after her diagnosis, Cox was deemed cancer-free. She’s used the last couple of months to reflect, while finding gratitude and perspective.
“It’s a new life for me now,” Cox said. “It just awakened me in a very positive way, to be there for others like others were there for me … I’m receiving acupuncture now, neuropathy therapy, so there are ways to receive support after, you just have to keep investigating after the cancer is done.”
As gutting as her cancer diagnosis was, Cox also reflects on what could have been had she not been so diligent about her yearly mammogram. Cox’s mother died of breast cancer, and though her genetic test results were negative, immediate family history of breast cancer is more than enough incentive for Cox to get that annual mammogram. Had she skipped it in 2022, her diagnosis could have been much bleaker.
“If I would have skipped one mammogram – I went from stage zero last year to stage II – in one year,” Cox said. “It was a very aggressive cancer, they told me. So we can’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do it, it hurts.’ Yes, it does hurt. But guess what? Treatment of cancer hurts worse. It hurts worse than just a little squeezing of the boobs.”
When Cox went into survivorship mode, gardening was right there for her, as it had always been. It lifted her spirits. It took her mind off chemo. It kept her busy during her work leave. It was something she could control. In addition to the infinite support she received from her husband, Louis, her family, her neighbors, her coworkers, and her healthcare team, her garden supported her as she supported it. And now, having won her battle with cancer, she’s back out in her garden doing what she loves. Her heart just isn’t as heavy as it was this time last year.
“Planting gives me strength,” Cox said. “Flowers are strength to me. They start off very, very small, and they grow and grow and grow, and they blossom. And that’s kind of how I feel about me. I was very weak, but then with the love and support of family and friends raining upon me, I’m growing back.”
More from MI Blues:
- Living with Terminal Breast Cancer, Portland, Mich. Woman Spreads Hope to Others
- Understanding the Different Types of Breast Cancer
- Breast Cancer Prevention: Steps to Take Today
Photo credit: Sylvia Cox