NORMAN — When JoAnn Belknap was first diagnosed with breast cancer, her mind immediately thought the worst. But through her friends, her faith and her determination, JoAnn Belknap beat breast cancer not only once, but twice.
“It means a lot that I have survived, and I ask God, ‘Why me? Why have you allowed me to continue to live?’” Belknap said. “I was reading Psalm 23 and I just decided that he wasn’t through with the path he had decided to give me.”
Belknap’s first discovery of breast cancer was in 2002 while her and her physician husband, Hal, were in New Zealand getting ready to go on JoAnn’s dream hike. Once the Belknap’s returned to Norman, their lives took a dramatic turn.
“It usually takes about three weeks to get an appointment, and it was time for my mammogram. So I called, and I think all of this is just a God thing, because the lady said ‘You know, I have a cancellation at 2:15 tomorrow. Can you come?’” Belknap said.
And from there, Belknap’s life sped up. She had a mammogram that led to a biopsy, which later led to a mastectomy.
“I was so frightened because my mom had died of breast cancer. For me, the word “cancer” meant death, not survival. I asked Dr. Sherri Durica, ‘Am I going to die?’ And she said, ‘Oh my, dear. You’re so brave in asking that so early.’ I don’t know what it was about it, but that just kind of put me at ease,” Belknap said.
After her first mastectomy, Belknap underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and more than 30 radiation treatments.
Belknap, who said she had no pain during her procedures, thought the worst was behind her after the first mastectomy. Then, in 2009, she found another lump. This time, Belknap was on her way to Uganda to open up the Dr. B Health Clinic.
“Whenever I was taking a shower on a Friday night and discovered a lump in my right breast, I thought, ‘OK this is going to be cancer, it can’t be anything else,’” Belknap said.
But in the fighting spirit that Belknap is known to show, she went on that trip to Uganda, only to return for a second mastectomy and six rounds of chemo.
“It was really an awful, off-the-wall type of cancer. It was a squamous cell carcinoma, which is very rare in the breast,” Belknap said. “I was prepared with all of the nausea that goes with it, but I was really blessed I didn’t have that.”
Even though Belknap had now lost both of her breasts, she said the hardest part of her illness was losing her hair.
“I now tell people to cut it short when you start and then shave it before you start your chemo. Get some hats and some wigs. I didn’t like wearing the wigs, but I really had some cute hats. They would stand in church and wait for me to come in and say, ‘We wanted to see what hat you wore today,’” Belknap said.
Between her first and second bouts with cancer, Belknap also had to deal with the death of her husband in 2008.
“He was so good about showing me how to take care of my scar or my incision. Whenever I was diagnosed in 2009, I thought, ‘I’m so glad, Hal, that you did this,’” Belknap said.
Although Belknap was forced to undergo the removal of her second breast without her husband, she managed to find peace.
“I said, ‘Whatever, God, you want is fine with me. It’s completely in your hands.’ I really let it go and I really didn’t worry about it anymore. I’m sure my path here isn’t done yet and as long as I can serve people, that will do me well,” Belknap said.
One of the ways that Belknap has been able to give back is through the Norman Regional Health System’s Cancer Survivor Resource Center at Norman Regional Hospital’s Porter Avenue campus that opened in June 2011. The resource center is operated by the American Cancer Society and gives free wigs, prothesis and bras to cancer patients. The center, ran by volunteers, is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
“It’s really fun to work in here,” Belknap said. “The community has given me so much, this is just a way to give back. Just to see the people excited and happy that they can be whole again, and to just see that someone cares.”
Finally finding her passion, Belknap knew she didn’t want the resource center to feel like an institutionalized place.
“I want people to walk in here and they feel hope and they feel like they are a survivor,” Belknap said.
Another way that Belknap gives back is partnering with her friend and fellow breast cancer survivor, Judy McKown, to meet with women who are about to have breast cancer surgery.
“We both had different experiences in the procedures. Family and friend’s support as well as your church support is very important,” Belknap said.
Through her suffering, Belknap learned that breast cancer doesn’t always mean the end.
“I lived in the Netherlands when I got the call that my mom had breast cancer. Of course, this was in 1966. I was quite shocked because I had just been in the states and had seen her. She lived only nine months. They didn’t have the treatment that we have today. So, of course, when I heard cancer, I heard I’m dying. Now I know that cancer can also equal hope, equal survival,” Belknap said.
For more information on the Norman Regional Health System’s Cancer Survivor Resource Center, call 307-4021.