"Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me," Donna Hicks said while munching on lunch with her best friend Marilyn Clark on Hicks' patio overlooking the Elkhorn Creek valley.
No, she's not joking.
"See, that's Donna," Clark chimed in. "She teaches me to live each day to the fullest."
"What she means by that is that I'm a bad influence on her," Hicks, 56, said with a wink.
Clark shakes her head and smiles.
"See, she says that, but I know the real Donna," Clark said. "She's the person I can talk to at any time about anything. She always lifts me up."
The two women have been best friends for the past 13 years. By fate, or as they would call it, a divine appointment, the pair met while waiting in line for lunch at a women's conference at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort almost 14 years ago.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, they had more in common than their faith and love of potato salad, and their relationship would become one of the strongest sources of support for each other in the years to come.
Both women are survivors of breast cancer, a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will take the lives of 39,620 women this year. Although Hicks insists, "we would have been best friends anyway," both women concede that having the same battle to fight was certainly one of the glues that bonded them.
"I met Donna right after my diagnosis in 2000," said Clark, 76. "Having someone who knew the ups and downs and the stress of what I was going through was really special."
Hicks had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, two years earlier, and she was more than familiar with the strength it took to fight back.
"When they found mine (cancer), at that moment I knew it was either sink or swim, and well, I thought to myself, 'I'm going to swim,'" Hicks said. "It took mind over matter every single day, to choose to beat it, and I did."
Clark agrees that the fight over the sometimes fatal disease is more mental than anything. "The best advice I would give someone going through it now would be to think positively," she said. "Also get lots of rest, eat healthy, and exercise," all things that Clark says she does now on a regular basis to maintain her health.
Julie Tooth is a friend of Hicks and an acquaintance of Clark's. She is also a survivor of breast cancer and understands how the friendship between survivors is crucial to being able to stay strong.
"They know things that other people do not." Tooth said. "Not only can they sympathize well, but they also know when to leave you alone ... . There is so much of the cancer experience that no one can help you through. It can be very lonely and frightening."
For Clark and Hicks, their first experience with breast cancer came long before their own diagnosis. Both watched mothers battle breast cancer before them, to different ends. Clark's mother was diagnosed at age 63. She had a single mastectomy that same year, and is still living today, 33 years later.
Clark recalls her mother's struggle as something that helped her summon courage against her own diagnosis. "I thought 'She survived, so can I,'" she said. Clark chose to have the same procedure as her mother did and was declared cancer free in 2005.
She is happy to count her mother, as well as her husband of 53 years, Lowell, three children and six grandchildren, as the greatest joys in her life.
"It is worth it to keep going to still be alive and have days to enjoy with them, to watch my grandchildren grow up," Clark said.
Hicks' mother was not as fortunate. The disease claimed her life when Hicks was 21 years old.
"My mother died of breast cancer at the same age I am now," notes Hicks, who received her own diagnosis at age 41. Hicks' mother had the same single mastectomy procedure as both Clark and her mother, but the cancer had already spread.
Early detection and advanced technology helped in Hicks' successful fight. Hicks opted, unlike Clark and her mother, to have a lumpectomy; she has been cancer free for nearly 15 years.
Dr. Jessica Croley, a medical oncologist at St. Joseph Cancer Center, says that one treatment over another is not always more or less successful. "It's an exciting era for breast cancer treatment," Croely said. "Advances in oncology have provided us with a variety of efficacious treatments for women. For the majority of women with early-stage breast cancer, whether they have one or the other (a mastectomy or lumpectomy paired with radiation) is their personal decision. Both treatments can be equally effective."
Hicks still gained strength from her mother's experience. "I learned the effects cancer has on family members, and the faith it takes to fight the disease by watching my mother," she said.
It wasn't the first time Hicks had been through heavy loss, either. Her father died when she was 16 years old, leaving her mother to raise her and her three siblings. At every turn, however, Hicks has chosen to focus on the life she has been given rather than what has been taken away, she said. Even her cancer, she recalls, was a blessing in disguise — something she had inadvertently prayed for.
Hicks said, "I remember laying in bed at night. I was a single mom, working full time, exhausted, praying to the Lord, 'There's got to be more than this, God.' Eleven months later, I got my diagnosis, and it's honestly the best thing that ever happened to me."
Part of the blessing-in-disguise for Hicks was a second chance at love. One well-wisher who came to see her during her recovery was Ben Hicks, who she had coincidentally met at the same small country church as her dear friend Marilyn Clark. He too knew what grief was like, having just experienced the passing of his wife.
The two began dating and were married in 1999, literally building a new life together by constructing a craftsman-style home in the Frankfort countryside.
Hicks lovingly muses about her husband, "Every Friday night would be date night. Even if I wanted to stay home and eat a sandwich in front of the TV, Ben would insist I get dressed up and go out with him so he could 'show me off' — and of course he knew I loved that." She tells this anecdote in the past tense, because her husband, like too many others in her life, would meet an untimely end to a tragic accident in 2007. After sustaining such inordinate loss, most in her situation would be angry at God at worst, and question his existence at best.
But instead of bitterness, Hicks has chosen a path of gratitude. "I'm just grateful that I got my shot at real love," she says. "Not everyone gets that."
It's that kind of gratitude that has enabled these women to maintain their friendship and their faith. "I'm thankful for every given moment I have from the Lord. His love is evident to me with each breath I take," Hicks said. "And I'm thankful for this one," she adds, extending her arm toward Clark's and squeezing it gently, "just the sweetest woman I've ever met."
Life as survivors isn't always "sweet" for the two, even well into their recovery. Clark says she "prays a lot, and depends on God and my doctors for healing."
Hicks candidly notes the apprehension that comes every year when she has to go in for her annual check-up. "It always seems to come so fast, doesn't it?" she says, looking at Clark, who nods in agreement. Both women agree that you never really know what to expect.
The women also dedicate time every year to go to awareness events together, such as Keeneland's Horses and Hope Pink Day — an event put on by first lady Jane Beshear in honor of women who have fought breast cancer.
However, many of their favorite moments together are shared simply. Most are over homemade food from one or the other's gardens, like their lunch today, and more than likely, a good glass of wine. Family is a constant part of their conversation and get-togethers. Hicks has three children and seven grandchildren whom she calls "the key part of her life."
Clark warns that it's nearly impossible to leave from Hicks' house empty-handed. Today she's walking out with a grocery bag overflowing with homegrown tomatoes. "Donna has a vivacious gift for hospitality," she said. "She has enriched my life by her example of how to reach out to others in friendship and love."
Hicks can't let the complement slide without singing the praises of her friend as well. "Marilyn is and always will be a kindred spirit from God to me," she said.