Pink Edition: 'I knew what she had ahead of her'

An Idaho mom's experience helped her daughter when the same breast-cancer diagnosis came.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comOctober 1, 2013 

Peggy Bitton and Sally Cavazos have a mother-daughter relationship that would fit nicely in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" film.

They share the same profession, take long road trips, read out loud together, finish one another's sentences.

But when Sally discovered in 2006 that she had the same breast cancer diagnosis that her mother had 16 years before, that was enough togetherness for Peggy.

"Why couldn't it have been me?" thought Peggy, now 89.

They couldn't change places. But they could rely on each other.

"I knew what she had ahead of her," Peggy recalled. "You just learn to live with it, get through it and then you're home free for awhile. You have life and you have a family and you have a future. It's not over yet."

Sally, now 54, said: "It was huge knowing my mom had survived. She was always saying, 'This, too, shall pass.' Her famous words. Yeah, I would be, like, throwing up. Yeah, 'This, too, shall pass.' It will pass now!"

Sally is the third of three children. Peggy and Max Bitton met in 1950 on the banks of the Upper Snake River in Swan Valley and married three months later. In 1969, they founded Mystic Saddle Ranch, offering horseback riding in the Stanley Basin. Peggy worked for 30 years as a teacher.

In 1999, Max was killed when his pickup was struck by a train not far from their Lava Hot Springs home. After her husband's death, Peggy moved to Boise. Seven years later, she was there to help her daughter through a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation at Mountain States Tumor Institute. Peggy had followed almost the exact course of treatment, but cut short chemotherapy because of extreme nausea.

"She has taken me to appointments and come to hold my hand when I am too sick to cope," Sally wrote of her mother in April 2007, after the last chemo treatment. "Then on the good days, we would take an afternoon to steal away together to shop, or take in a girl movie."

Sally wrote in her journal that "this thing, this cancer, would just have to fit into my schedule." But she learned that her immune system couldn't match her bravado. She left her job as a teacher's assistant at Chief Joseph Elementary in Meridian.

'NOT A FINE TIME'

Sally bristled at people who told her she'd be "fine."

"People would say, 'Well, I have a friend who's a teacher and she had breast cancer and she's fine.' And I'm like, 'Well, good for her.' I hope they're not saying that now about me to someone else who's going through cancer and using me as the example that 'she's just fine.' Because, you know -"

"— You're not," said Peggy.

"I'm not just fine and never will be," Sally said. "I think it just kind of minimizes it and makes it really frustrating. Because no matter what, it's just not a fine time."

Sally has a common cancer side effect, lymphedema, which causes her right arm to swell because of damaged lymph nodes from surgery and radiation. She wears a compression sleeve and glove, and uses a machine nightly to massage away fluid.

None of this is to suggest that she spends a lot of time feeling sorry for herself. Rather, Sally used her recovery to spur her career. "I finally decided, 'Hey, I have a whole new life ahead of me. Let's go do what I'd like to do.' And that would be to be a teacher."

Returning to school at 50, she earned a master's from George Fox University in 2011 and got a job she loves - teaching fifth grade at Pioneer Elementary in Boise.

"Finally," offered Peggy, displaying the wry humor she learned in her rural hometown, Granite Falls, Minn., the destination of a recent road trip.

A HAT PARTY

Sally remembers her stolid father breaking down 23 years ago when the family learned of Peggy's cancer. "This rough rancher tough guy just melted on my shoulder," Sally said. "He's just bawling."

Sixteen years advanced the standard of care, the women agree, including more effective nausea drugs, exercise and massage.

"You were more like just go in, get your treatment and here's some juice," Sally said to her mom.

Sally said she took pleasure in the small things: geese flying, birds at her feeder, the smell of flowers, a song in church, the two oldest of her four children calling from Colgate University. Her husband, Manuel, a former minister, "spoiled" her with a new juicer and quietly kept her company.

She tapped her faith. Anxious about her nakedness during radiation treatment, she found comfort in Romans, 8:35: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?"

Friends such as Pam Strain, who'd met her in college when both were active in Campus Crusade for Christ, were near.

"Cancer didn't beat her, she beat it," Strain said "She was easy to be around, even when she wasn't feeling well and lost her hair."

Sally's youngest son, Cory, was a high school sophomore during the year of treatment. He took it hard.

"She started pulling her hair out," he said. "It was devastating and I didn't fully grasp the concept of cancer. That was a difficult thing to see."

Eager to make a clean start, Sally had a hair-stylist friend shave her head. Soon after, her husband and three sons got buzz cuts in the family garage, and friends threw a party at which she received about two dozen hats.

"That was just a really special way for my friends to take care of me," she said.

"She felt like she wanted to throw up, but having those hats were things that could lighten her up and get her through the day," Cory Cavazos said.

THE POWER OF LOVE

Cory and Manuel are both musicians. During the son's senior year at Centennial High School, they played a weekly gig. A few minutes every week, Sally sang harmony on one tune "Falling Slowly," the Oscar-winning love song from the film "Once."

As Peggy ages, Cory sees Sally reflecting a lifetime of love: "My gramma was there for my mom and my mom is always there for her."

The two survivors worry about Sally's daughter, Jenni Maylene Buckendorf, who lives in Portland and works as a data architect at Providence Health & Services, a Northwest hospital chain and insurer.

Breast cancer "can be passed on. That is a definite concern," Sally said.

Sally first found a lump on her breast when she was visiting her daughter at Colgate. It was October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and she took monthly self-exams seriously. Now, she's doubly diligent. "I always remind whoever's around me, 'OK, ladies! Get checked!' " she said.

Jenni found a lump four years ago, but it was benign. Now 28, she says she'll start annual mammograms at 30 because of her risk, a decade ahead of normal protocol.

"That was a little scary, but now I'm not worried at all," she said. "I just have hope things will always turn out for the better."

As her mother was inspired by Peggy, Buckendorf has her maternal example.

"Mom looks past current problems," Buckendorf said. "As long as she feels love and can give love, it's worth it. For all the pain and suffering she's gone through, still she's happy and loves others. That makes me think that I can deal with it, too."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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