When Debra Blakely found a lump in her breast, she was horrified by what it meant.
"The first thing that went through my mind was death," said Blakely. She admitted asking herself a lot of hard questions about the possibility of cancer, what she should do and what a cancer diagnosis meant.
Despite a long road to recovery, Blakely's journey has a happy ending.
On Dec. 10, 2004, Blakely was diagnosed with a 5.5-millimeter tumor in her left breast.
"I did think that (breast cancer) was a life sentence when I was first diagnosed," said Blakely, a 20-year veteran of Harlem's Tracy-Luckey Co., where she is supervisor of the candy room. "I had a tumor. Who wouldn't think that?"
After reviewing her options with her Thomson doctor, Blakely decided to have a mastectomy removing her breast and lymph node about a week after her diagnosis.
Only a few days and a one-night hospital stay later, Blakely arrived at the company Christmas party dressed like a model and looking like the picture of health, said Ruth Tracy Blackburn, vice president and CEO of Tracy-Luckey Co.
"We're all like family," Blackburn said, adding that Blakely, as a supervisor, is a key part of the Tracy-Luckey operation. "It is her way of rubbing all her energy on people."
Blackburn said she didn't expect Blakely to be out of work long. She was right.
Only a month after her diagnosis, Blakely, who Blackburn said has an infectious positive attitude, asked to come back to work.
"I began to feel bad for myself again," Blakely said. "That's the time that I called out here to Tracy-Luckey, to (plant manager) Homer Gay and Ruth Tracy (Blackburn). I told them that I was feeling so down, I need to work."
The workplace was Blakely's normal routine, where operations didn't stop because she was sick. That was comforting, she said, and working distracted her from sitting at home obsessing about cancer and dying.
"Once I got back to work, I prayed to God," Blakely said. "I asked God for all of His strength and His mercy and encouragement to give me strength. And I had so much love here with the people at Tracy-Luckey. They treated me just like family."
Blakely came back to the candy room lifting 50 pound bags of sugar, while receiving eight chemotherapy treatments.
She'd have early morning bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments until late April. She missed very little work despite having trouble walking because the drugs affected her muscles.
Blakely scheduled the following 30 days of radiation treatments at 4 p.m., after work.
She went back to Tracy-Luckey so soon and kept working through her treatments, she said, because she was thankful to be alive and able to work.
"The people here at Tracy-Luckey are really a family to me," Blakely said. "They encouraged me."
Blakely said her faith, and the strong support system of her co-workers and family, especially her husband Timmie Neal, kept her positive and encouraged through her battle with breast cancer.
"He was with me every step of the way," Blakely said. "He took me to every chemotherapy treatment. He took me to every radiation."
Blakely said she'd advise anyone with a similar diagnosis to stay positive and trust in God.
"You only go around this earth once and when God gives you the chance, you have to enjoy and appreciate it," Blakely said.
"I want people to know that cancer is not the end. Early detection is the key."
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