When Cara Willis attends her son’s graduation from Marine boot camp later this year, the two will be sporting matching haircuts.
That’s because just before her first chemotherapy treatment last week, the McCarroll Middle School teacher had her head shaved. Willis, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in July, donated her hair to Pantene Beautiful Length.
Although Willis has donated hair twice before, she’s never had such a drastic haircut.
“But I hate to see it wasted going down a drain,” the Decatur resident said.
Her longtime hairdresser, Donna Jones, partitioned and snipped five small ponytails to donate, this time to Pantene Beautiful Lengths. The campaign provides wigs specifically for women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatment.
As Jones buzzed away stray stubs of hair, Willis held up a sign that read – “Cancer, you can’t take what I freely give.”
“This will make it worth something,” Willis said.
Adding to the value of the experience for Willis was her younger daughter’s selflessness. Whitney, who previously sported a pixie cut, had her head shaved bald, like her mom – and her dad, Ronald.
“I was ahead of the game,” he joked.
Whitney added: “Think of all of the money we’ll save on shampoo.”
The love and support of her family, coupled with faith, has helped Cara Willis on her journey.
“I haven’t had a mammogram in 15 years,” Willis, said. “The last time I had one, it was at one of those mobile units, and they called me two days after I had it and told me to go to Fort Worth to get another one because they thought they saw something.”
Although the screenings yielded nothing, which was fortunate, Willis said having her breasts squeezed twice in a week was not pleasant.
“So when I finally did decide to have another one done, I went straight to Fort Worth,” the 56-year-old said.
Again, she received a call that an additional screening would be necessary.
“I really got upset,” she said.
The prognosis was not as favorable this time. Willis was scheduled for a needle biopsy a week later.
She watched intently during the procedure. If the mass was not cancer, the needle’s suction would deflate it; if it stood solid, it was cancer.
“As I watched the sonogram screen, it didn’t change in size as the needle took several stabs at the shadow on the screen,” Willis said. “I knew it before she told me.”
Willis met with an oncologist a few days later who confirmed that it was cancer – invasive ductal carcinoma.
Blood work confirmed that it was not genetic, but it was characterized with an 80 percent growth rate.
“Twenty percent is considered high,” Willis said,
Surgery was scheduled for the next week, and in the three weeks between the mammogram/sonogram and the surgery, the tumor grew 7 millimeters.
Fortunately, her lymph nodes showed no traces of cancer and because her tumor was less than 2 centimeters big, Willis was able to undergo intracavitary brachytherapy.
This form of radiation is higher in intensity but more focused.
Following five days of this treatment, twice per day, Willis had to wait a month before beginning chemo. She underwent the first of four treatments – each three weeks apart – on Oct. 17.
“If I hadn’t gone in to have the mammogram when I did, I hate to think of what might have happened,” Willis said. “I couldn’t feel it. I had no clue. It almost doubled in size while I waited for surgery.
“I’ve been telling my classmates to go get a mammogram,” she said. “Once you start getting up there in your years, make sure you go get a mammogram. I caught mine early, but only by God’s grace.”
Willis won’t let cancer take what she freely gives. And what she doesn’t freely give is in the hands of a higher power.
“God’s got it,” she said. “I’ll be OK.”