Faith is the recurring word that surrounds the diagnosis, treatment and survival of Nettie Pennington as a lady warrior against breast cancer. Faith is where she leaned upon learning of her illness, faith is what sustained her throughout her treatment, and faith has pushed her forward into her new revelations on life post-cancer.
“By faith, I was never afraid and never thought this disease would be to the death,” reflected Pennington on her journey through battling the disease that has touched the lives of so many women across the world.
Born on April 25, 1952 in rural Tennessee, Pennington grew up never suspecting that breast cancer was in her future. She spent over 30 years of her life working for the federal government in Washington, D.C., less than 12 miles from the Pentagon. She and her husband, Curtis, lived in Virginia and made a life for themselves. They endured the chaos of September 11, 2001 together. They built their lives without fear and grew in faith. Curtis retired from the U.S. Army in 1989, but the couple waited until Nettie retired in 2006 before finally moving back to their southern roots and setting down their homestead in Mississippi.
The Pennington’s went about their lives as usual until that day in 2015 when Nettie was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer.
“I was a little shocked because I was not aware of any breast cancer cases in my direct lineage.” Nettie explained.
Pennington never met her grandparents, and she had no way of knowing if breast cancer was a risk factor in her family.
“They died before I was born, and there was little-to-no conversation about them, especially health issues, at the dinner table,” she said.
Curtis Pennington had a different perspective on the effects of breast cancer on the women in his family.
“My mother died of breast cancer before they had the technology to treat it,” he said. “My mother died when I was 10 years old.”
Upon learning of the diagnosis of his wife, Curtis fought the memories of his mother.
“I had flashbacks,” he said. “It was painful, and I cried a few tears.”
Nettie, who continuously refers to Curtis as not only her husband, but her best friend was more anxious for his reaction than her own.
“I was more concerned about my husband, who looked more shocked and scared than I did,” she explained.
Curtis agreed with his wife of 47 years.
“We are so close, it felt like I had breast cancer,” he said. “I was shocked and thought, ‘this isn’t supposed to happen.’”
After the surprise and initial feelings of disbelief faded, the Pennington’s dug into their faith. Not only their faith in God, but also faith that the doctors would have the skills and knowledge to do what was necessary.
Nettie sought treatment from Baptist Memorial Hospital-Desoto in Southaven, Miss. There she, Curtis and her team of doctors decided on a course of treatment.
“We finally agreed on surgery, chemotherapy and radiation,” she explained. “The treatment was long, and the side effects were difficult and tiring.”
As for recovery, Pennington described the process as exhausting. The treatments zapped her of a lot of her energy, but the biggest loss she felt was losing her hair.
“Although I knew it could happen, when lumps of hair started falling out, it was a little scary,” Pennington said.
True to her nature, Pennington was able to find the silver lining.
“On the bright side, I don’t have to worry about whether my husband is true to his marriage vows, ‘in sickness and in health.’ He has seen me at my worst, bald and barely able to get out of bed in the morning or sleep at night. If possible, we are closer. He is truly my BFF-Best Friend Forever.” she said.
Pennington also expressed her sorrow over the changes in her voice. As a devout member of her church choir, she was forced to resign. The cancerous infection and the treatments left her with a throat that always feels scratchy and she can have a coughing spell at any time. However, her faith continues to be a cornerstone for her.
“By faith,” Pennington said, “I got used to being bald, the bad taste in my mouth, to the scars and the pain.”
It was during her treatment and recovery time that Pennington put more work into her spiritual growth.
“I started sharing my thoughts online with family, friends and Facebook friends.” she remembered. “Sharing my experiences seemed to encourage people to share their experiences as well.”
Forming these relationships, proved to be an important development for Pennington as she sought to not only grow her own support group, but to offer support to others as well.
“Sharing my experiences seemed to encourage people to share their experiences as well,” furthered Pennington. “There were people who were cancer survivors and had never shared that information with anyone before. This sharing was indeed a great comfort and was the foundation for enlarging our support group.”
It was through this network of support that Pennington found the most important piece of advice she could offer- listening.
“Listen to the person,” she said. “Give them a smile and let them know you’re there for them.”
Pennington went on to stress how much a person’s past plays into their needs, and the importance of listening to what those circumstances might be.
“It all depends on the background,” she said. “There is no glossing over the situation. Just listen to the person. Listen to what they want to say and give them love.”
This year, Pennington hits the 5-year survivor mark, and she gives credit to her doctors and support system.
“Getting breast cancer in my sixties caught me off-guard,” she said. “An annual physical and a dedicated and concerned doctor probably saved my life.”
As for her plans moving forward, she wants to continue to spread her values in faith through her writing and enjoy retirement with her husband.
“If you believe in God and look at the wonders of this world, you don’t get tired of it,” she said. “I love just looking around and seeing the wonders like deer and turkeys wandering around and seeing things in nature.”
Pennington continues to write a weekly column devoted to matters of faith for the Tate Record. She and her husband Curtis have co-authored a book entitled “Walking in Darkness: An Overcomer’s Journey”, which was released in April of this year. The book can be purchased on Amazon.
Looking forward, Pennington hopes to continue her writing and be a positive influence in her community. Ever true to her faith, she encourages others to find faith as well.
“I am thankful to be alive, and I find joy in the Word of God,” she said. “Because my family, church family and friends gave me so much, I encourage giving a smile, a kind word, or an ear that listens earnestly. With your eyes fixed on a higher calling, enjoy life.”
And enjoy life, is just what Nettie plans to do. The Pennington’s share their lives with their four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.