Racing for Joy
When Sherry Chappell was just 35, a stay-home mother with two small sons, she found a lump in her breast. She consulted her doctor, who sent Chappell for her first mammogram.
"My very first one was horrible," Chappell says.
Cancer was visible on the mammogram image. A lumpectomy was scheduled. But magnetic resonance imaging showed cancer throughout the breast. So, in November 2004, a month after diagnosis, Chappell underwent a mastectomy. Months of radiation and chemotherapy followed, after which she was deemed cancer-free.
Three years later -- a year after concluding her four reconstructive surgeries -- Chappell will compete on Mother's Day, her 39th birthday, in a women's triathlon at Disney World. Two of her three sisters will run, bicycle and swim with her; the youngest sister is pregnant and due that day.
Chappell says it has become especially meaningful to set goals like training for her first triathlon.
"You feel like life goes on," she says.
At the time she found the lump, Chappell knew her mother's sister had had breast cancer at around age 50. "I was a little aware that I needed to be careful and pay attention," she says. "But I still never thought it would happen." After Chappell finished treatment, her maternal grandmother also was found to have breast cancer, chose not to treat it because of her age, and died last year.
Chappell decided on a mastectomy because the lumpectomy was not a sure thing. She and her husband, Wade, knew someone who underwent three or so lumpectomies before ultimately having a double mastectomy.
"My husband said, 'I'd rather you be here,'" she says. "Through the whole awful thing, we're able to laugh together, and handle it together."
The two met at church camp when she was 9, went to Riverview High in Sarasota and have been married 15 years. (All four sisters married men from Grace Baptist's youth group.) Sherry is an elementary schoolteacher who left the workplace when their oldest son was born. Wade is a lieutenant with the Sarasota County Fire Department.
"She went through cancer, but it basically affected our whole family," Wade Chappell says.
They tried to communicate the situation to their sons, Ryan and Jonathan, then 4 and 6.
"I took them both aside," says Wade, "and basically just explained that she was sick, and it was the kind of sick that she had to go to the hospital because they had to take it out. And they had to give her medicine for it." Rather than give the boys the whole picture, the Chappells attempted to address each step as it came up -- but on the children's level.
Wade coped by researching cancer and treatment options. His grandmother died of cancer the day after Sherry received her diagnosis.
"Unfortunately, everyone has somebody in their family who has or had cancer," he says. The couple noticed there always was somebody worse off, Wade says, and always some reason to be thankful. They had "chemo dates," watching DVDs together during her treatments. He shaved her head when her hair started falling out.
Sherry Chappell says a cancer survivor gave her a pink rose and a copy of this Bible verse: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
"Of course, my faith is huge for me. In this life, we're all going to have things that are tough," says Sherry, a member of Sarasota Alliance, where she is part-time children's director. "And from all my study of the Bible, I think that God just wants us to trust him anyway."
Her sister Debbie Smith of Alpharetta, Ga., says Chappell's nature was a plus throughout surgeries, chemo and radiation.
"I think people who do handle it well or better, they are willing to ask for help and receive it," Smith says. "She's always been very open. That's her personality. What you see is what you get."
Last fall, all the sisters underwent testing for the breast cancer gene. Smith did not have it, but the others do -- Chappell, Missy Davis of McNeal, Ariz., and Becky Burwell of Mead, Colo.
In January, as a pre-emptive, Chappell had her ovaries removed. Burwell and the pregnant Davis face decisions of their own.
Running with Chappell and her sisters is Melissa Tomasso, whom she met through their sons at Lakeview Elementary School. Tomasso, who competed in the triathlon last year, urged Chappell to enter and has helped her train. "I told her it's just this really empowering event," Tomasso says. "She will finish, because she has that drive that she will not let herself not finish."
"Our goal is to finish it together, not to win," Smith says. "Just to finish it together."