October 21, 2020
Contributed by Gene Lehmann
Chickasaw Nation Media Relations
Chickasaw breast cancer survivor chronicles harrowing and uplifting survivor story in therapy book
BYNG, Okla. – Mary Ahtone saw the specter of death coming for her as she fought breast cancer.
“I was sleeping and felt great pressure on my chest, pressing down. I woke up and, in the distance, I could see a black mist coming toward me. I knew in a second what it was. I had seen it (before) after a car accident I was in. It was the ‘death’ spirit. My mouth was parched, and I felt so dehydrated, but I yelled as loud as I could: ‘No! In the name of Jesus, I bind you!’ Then the blackness seemed to dissipate into thin air. The air was so heavy.”
Those words are handwritten in a 47-page bound volume Ms. Ahtone began writing when first diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2009.
The Chickasaw woman’s book is an example of her spiritual endurance. Its extremely thick and textured paper not only chronicles her journey to defeat breast cancer, but it also shows the emotional highs and lows of the fight she waged. Chickasaw and First American symbols are incorporated throughout, along with other beautiful and colorful illustrations.
Within its pages are words of encouragement, goal setting, despair and determination.
Welcome to my world
Inflammatory breast cancer is one of the most aggressive diseases one can face. Usually it is caused by an injury or trauma. So it was with Ms. Ahtone, who suffered an injury after slipping on a freshly mopped floor. Losing her footing, she slammed into a bookshelf and onto the floor.
A few months later, symptoms manifested.
“I was worried. I checked out a dozen books on breast cancer before going to see a doctor. I wanted to be an informed patient. I had all of the symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer and all the books said the survival rate was only 2%,” she recalled.
A doctor confirmed Ms. Ahtone’s fears. She was given six months to live. The doctor told her to begin chemotherapy and to get her affairs in order.
Ms. Ahtone was not having any of it.
“I thought to myself, ‘The God I serve and who raised people from the dead does not accept survival statistics,’” she wrote in the book.
She began traditional chemotherapy to shrink the tumors, buying herself time to find a surgeon to successfully remove her breasts.
She found Chickasaw citizen, Dr. Teresa Shavney, a noted physician with the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Shavney has more than 30 years’ experience in cancer surgery. She is the daughter of Chickasaw Beaulah Shavney, who joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943, earning the World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal, the WAC Service Medal and the American Campaign Medal.
“I knew I found a true Chickasaw warrior with Teresa,” Ms. Ahtone said.
“(Dr. Shavney) explained the entire (radical mastectomy) procedure and what to expect afterward. The thing that brought me comfort most was when she said, ‘Mary, I will be the last face you see before surgery and the first when you get out. I will be with you the whole distance,’” Ms. Ahtone wrote.
The book and a ‘new normal’
For Ms. Ahtone, the book was cathartic.
Within its pages are torturous events, such as chemotherapy related heart failure from a collapsed artery requiring emergency surgery. There also is exhilaration at celebrating 11 years of being cancer free in June 2020 despite a year “of chaos” as she reflects on the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world
“The experts and medical staff tell you to celebrate milestones,” she said. Several pages of the book celebrate her cancer-free status with an artistic flare. One page proclaims: “July 22, 2010, Red Letter Day! Yea! PET scan report. No evidence of cancer. The struggle was fierce, but my God was mighty.”
While her body and mind were tested, her faith was affirmed.
“How can I best serve God?” she wrote. “Expand your horizons, Mary. This is not about you. There is a bigger purpose for your life being spared. Look for it. It’s right before your eyes. Then suddenly a peace came over me, and I had a picture of Jesus on the cross. I thought, ‘What I’m going through is nothing compared to what our Savior went through on the cross for us.’ Then I cried and cried as I realized he loved me so much,” she observes in the book.
Life lessons are a large part of her book.
Image: A page from Mary Ahtone’s book illustrating her 2009 cancer fight. She dedicated it to two granddaughters, Mary Ahtone and Isabella Wika.
“I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find out I’ve only lived the length of it. I want to know I lived the width of it as well.
“As I prepared to lose my breasts I wondered if all the chemo would affect my ability to recover,” she wrote. In fact, the radical mastectomy would prove to be a challenge and a time to rejoice as well.
“Finding a new normal,” she titles one page. “This was a challenge. Does this mean accepting aches and pains I didn’t have before cancer? Did this mean finding and accepting all the limitations I was left with after surgery and chemo? Does it mean not being able to go as far walking, exercising, doing the things I once enjoyed?”
Ms. Ahtone also expresses conflicting emotions, particularly frustration. “Unable to exercise like I used to. Get tired easily. Hate taking pills every day. No strength in my arms. Arm hurts all the time. Ignored. Clothes don’t fit. Unable to focus like I used to,” she noted.
“To me, it means not giving up. Not being satisfied with less than what I can do. To me, it’s finding the optimal levels of where I feel I can be and feel I have done my best living with the limits of my disability,” she wrote in the book.
Image: Mary Ahtone’s "therapy" includes beadwork on display at her Byng home, including this stethoscope and children’s pucker toe moccasins.
Healed and Thriving
Ms. Ahtone celebrated 78 years of life Sept. 9, 2020.
She was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Her parents worked at the First American hospital on the Lakota reservation and her ancestry is Chickasaw and Choctaw.
“I believe God puts you in situations so that you can turn around and help other people,” Ms. Ahtone said. “I started a cancer support group, and I have found Ada, Oklahoma, is one of the most giving communities I’ve ever lived in.”
She earned a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in educational psychology in 1973 and served two years in the U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in 1960. In fact, she met and became friends with Beaulah Shavney by virtue of her service in the Army. That is how she knew to seek out Dr. Shavney for surgery.
Despite all Ms. Ahtone has endured, her home is filled with beadwork and artistic endeavors she calls “therapy.” A beaded stethoscope is a reminder of her ordeal. She said on a scale to 10 she believes her function is probably an 8.
“It doesn’t dampen my attitude,” she said. “I am an optimist and, honestly, a positive attitude helps everyone in all circumstances, along with obedience to God,” Ms. Ahtone stated. “The message I have for everyone is you can’t live a moment without God.”