The community of Athens, TN huddled together inside of the old building, the wood panels muffling their whispers and excited giggles. White balloons tickled the ceiling and twinkling lights hugged the columns. Large foil balloons in the numbers 5 and 0 swayed overhead above a hundred friends and family members. Mary Francis, Stacy’s seven-year-old daughter, crouched by the doorway, iPhone ready to record. At any moment, Stacy Alexander would walk into her 50th birthday surprise party – a birthday milestone that seemed so far away when she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at age forty-three.
“It’s a huge, huge milestone. Excited to get to this point. Having been diagnosed at forty-three and knowing so little people make it their first year, to make it to fifty, is huge. So I’m extremely excited,” said Stacy.
“I thought I was there to play Bunko. I thought I was there for my usual monthly evening with my friends and I was absolutely shocked and surprised to see a lot of faces I wasn’t expecting to see. It was unbelievable, it obviously sent me to tears.”
It’s been a long, tough journey for Stacy and her family. For a mom of nine children, ranging from ages five to twenty-one, a cancer diagnosis was something that wasn’t expected. It never is. Despite this, Stacy maintains a shield of optimism that has carried her through this journey.
Seven years ago, on January 25, 2012, Stacy was diagnosed as a stage four cancer patient. There was a tumor in her lower third esophagus and it had metastasized to her lymph nodes and liver. Her heart was barely working. After two rounds of six months of chemo she was completely clear. Her ignorance to how grim her diagnosis was in the beginning is what allowed her to focus on the positive.
“I think when I started getting well enough and realized how bad it was I was getting back to the well side. I was able to maybe process things better and handle it, whereas when I was so sick I don’ think I would have handled it as well,” she says about keeping herself in the dark during the beginning of her diagnosis. “I closed the computer and said, I don’t wanna know.”
The thought processes of the brain play a huge role in the healing process, so Stacy maintains the path of positivity she is on.
“Every day is great. I don’t have bad days. Every day is a great day. Just some days are just more challenging,” she says, her wide smile raising her cheeks to her dancing blue eyes. She says this with an air of confidence, an unshakable optimism that’s not easy to find.
After she was clear, Stacey found out she was pregnant with baby number nine, Charles, who is now five years old. Pregnancy is a sign of health, so she bounced from being very sick to very healthy in a matter of months. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but were happy to take the positive turn of events. The next couple of years were relatively normal.
Cancer is ugly, but Stacy maintains she has had a good journey. She focuses on the positives and not the ugly side. Two years after her original diagnosis they found a tumor in her stomach. They sought a second opinion and did a surgery which lead to three years treatment free. Two years following that, doctors discovered some metastatic cancer.
Currently, Stacy is looking at doing more chemo to combat the disease. She’s done proton therapy and radiation and is set to do more chemo. She is waiting to be stronger to continue her treatments. “Just trying to build my body back up,” she says.
Stacey recently met a man in treatment who needed some of her hope. He was a resident of Sweetwater, TN not too far from where she lives.
“I asked him what he was here for, you know, just for fun. This gentleman said well I have this really horrible cancer, he said I have esophageal cancer. He tells me about it. We talked. He said what about you. I said interestingly enough almost seven years ago I was diagnosed with the same cancer and his demeanor instantly changed. All of a sudden he had that glimmer of hope. You could just see the sparkle in his eye. I was such a good feeling to give that, to share that with him,” she said.
Stacey’s children speak of her with the utmost respect and admiration. Caroline, her oldest daughter was only fourteen when Stacey was first diagnosed.
“She is the strongest and most brave person you will ever meet. People here in my town will tell you the exact same thing. She’s been through a lot and comparatively some people just can’t do the things she does,” said Caroline. “Whenever my mom shares her story you never know who you’re talking to and how many connections you can get. It’s incredible how many people are affected by this and it’s amazing to find them.”