Joyce Sorrell: More Than Just a Survivor
The Ashland Beacon
When I think about my Mamaw Sorrell, lots of things come to mind, but “cancer survivor” isn’t near the top of the list. She was diagnosed in 1985, had a single mastectomy that same year, had a muscle-flap reconstruction in 1987, and has been cancer-free for nearly 38 years now. While I don’t want to minimize the physical and emotional strain she endured during those years, I also know that she’s more than just that diagnosis. Her life post-cancer proves it. Allow me to introduce all the parts of my Mamaw Sorrell, not just the breast cancer survivor.
Mamaw was born in 1933 to Thomas and Lula Allen in Ashland, KY. She and her brother, Homer, and sister, Juanita, grew up here in the area. Mamaw married Charles Sorrell in 1950, and together they had three children: Tom, Connie (Burns), and Janet (Cross). They currently have six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren. Mamaw worked at Garden Motor Court, Cinderella Fashions, Eagles Five & Dime, Hills Department Store, First Federal Savings and Loan, as a caregiver for her grandchildren, and ended her working years at Kentucky Farmers Bank. It was while working at KFB that she was diagnosed. A routine mammogram ordered by Dr. Okey Sanford, in November of 1985, led to the unthinkable, given that she was there only for her annual exam. Surgery followed on December 6, 1985. Because the cancer was caught early, she did not have to endure radiation or chemo and has been cancer-free since. As a reminder, she remarked, “It is so important to go to those yearly exams! I walked into his office completely healthy. I had no idea.”
While Mamaw had a lot of jobs and life experiences before I was born, it’s been what I’ve watched since 1975 that paints the picture of who she is to me. Witnessing her work years at KFB, I still recall thinking as a kid how impressive it was that my grandmother had a professional career in the business world! These days would also find her going to high school sporting events, where she and Papaw would sit in the stands wearing Boyd County gear. With six grand-children close in age, there were plenty of BC events to attend. During these years, there was often a Sunday School quarterly and steno pad with notes laying on the kitchen counter, ready for Sunday morning’s Adult Bible class, which she taught at Meade Station Church of God for more than 30 years. Etched into my memory are Sunday morning walks to church with our extended family. I can also easily recall the odd-to-me-then Sunday morning tradition of running the sweeper before church, probably a result of the busy schedule she was keeping at that time, with after-school grandkid events, church work, and the hours she spent cooking and holding a full-time job. Her life before cancer was richly blessed.
Life post-cancer has been the same. Vibrance has marked every moment--from the way she’s chosen to live to the way she and her perfectly-silver hair wear the color red. Mamaw’s life (which has included the unwavering devotion of Papaw) has found her caring for others repeatedly. She opened her home and assisted my Great-Aunt Ollie at the end of her life and repeated the same with her niece, Debbie Buckley, during her own battle with cancer. She also cared for her brother, John, until he was unable to continue living at home. Her caring hands have reached out tenderly to countless family members and friends, allowing many of us to call their basement apartment or the mobile home on their property “home” at different points. The years post-cancer also saw Mamaw actively involved in women’s mission events at church, using the skills of cooking and teaching, ones she’d perfected over the years. She served as the church’s Treasurer during those years, was Sunday School Superintendent, and held positions on the Church Council and Pulpit Committee. Somehow in the midst of the church work and full-time job, she also found time to make middle school formal dance dresses for some of us (one of those dresses being my very favorite ever--a hot pink and black polka-dotted two-piece ensemble, with a quintessential 80s pencil skirt, high-low hem overlay, and huge bow on the front waistline.) Her hands found a way to make quilts for us when we got married, to crochet delicate doilies that still decorate our tables and Christmas trees, and to teach us along the way to do some of those things ourselves, though never with as much skill as she had. If that wasn’t enough, she volunteered for the non-profit group called Reach to Recovery, which has been helping women during their breast cancer battle for more than 50 years now. Through this organization, she was trained to assist other women by attending bra fittings with them or helping them adjust the fit of their clothing post-surgery. And, the number of times over the years that she’s watched the great- and even great-great grandchildren in her life now--too many to count! Ethan Parsons, great-grandson says his fondest memories of Mamaw are “anytime you get her laughing. That’s always fun!” If you really know her, you know her laugh is one-in-a-million! I remember all of these things so much more clearly than the cancer diagnosis.
In true let-me-help-you form, Mamaw has a thing or two to say if you’re in the midst of any sort of battle--whether that be one against cancer or something else life has placed in front of you. She advised, “God loves you and would love to fight that battle with you.” She’s proven there’s life to live on the other side of what you’re up against. It’s her faith that sustained her when she was diagnosed, and faith that has endured every other battle since. The blip that was breast cancer has been dim for more than 38 years now. She is so much more than just a survivor. To try to boil Mamaw’s life down to a small article that focuses on her breast cancer recovery would be to paint you a flat, one-sided picture, when the reality of who she is and continues to be is so much more than just any one of these things, least of all a disease that doesn’t come with any measure of grace, beauty, or love. That’s who my Mamaw Sorrell is. She is the grace of God on two feet, stretching outward to show Him to the world. She is beauty in the midst of the storms of life, a resting place for those who’ve needed shelter, food, clothing, wisdom, and care. And, she is love--faithful to her family, faithful to her God, and faithful to give of herself when others are in need. Yes, she HAD cancer. At one point in time. But, that was not the end of her story.