When I last talked to Nicole Armstrong, hers was one of six black families being honored for its strength.
She said then, “Our family motto is, ‘If we can help someone along the way, then our living is not in vain.’ ”
That was May 2014.
In August 2015, an inexplicable, excruciating pain in her lower-right abdomen pushed Armstrong to the hospital emergency department. Tests that ruled out any problems with her appendix or gall bladder revealed a tumor.
After an eight-hour surgery, the diagnosis: stage IV colon cancer.
The disease had metastasized to her ovaries, which meant a partial colon removal and a full hysterectomy for the mother of two daughters, ages 21 and 16, and a 5-year-old son. It also meant six months of chemotherapy, which ended in April.
Within three months, the cancer returned, and Armstrong underwent four weeks of daily radiation, followed by more rounds of chemo that are currently part of her bimonthly schedule.
Since March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, Armstrong, 43, of Raleigh gave me a call.
“I am in no way discouraged,” she said. “I’m just trying to enlighten people to get educated and get screened.
“Colon cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”
Armstrong pointed to the first three letters in “cancer.” “C-A-N,” she said. “Can.” And she shared three Fs on which she relies: faith, family and friends.
“You’ve got to have that support system,” she said.
Despite the drain chemo can deliver, Armstrong is thrilled she’s still able to be a present, dedicated mom – and that she crossed the finish line March 4 at Raleigh’s Get Your Rear in Gear 5K sponsored by the Colon Cancer Coalition.
No matter the cancer, disease or illness, it is front-line warriors like Armstrong and hosts of volunteers who help fuel the missions of nonprofit agencies and other organizations working to improve lives, educate communities, raise awareness, encourage screenings and fund the finding of cures.
On April 22, Armstrong will share her story as a featured speaker at the Fill Your Bucket List Foundation’s annual Bucket Bash fundraiser. The foundation was started by Peggy Carroll in 2014, one year before Armstrong’s diagnosis, in honor of her own father, to grant wishes to adults living with cancer – much like the Make-A-Wish Foundation does for children.
“Cancer can be a blessing, if you let it, because it forces us to think about and live out our bucket list,” said Marie Otto, the foundation’s executive director, echoing Carroll’s philosophy.
In each case, the common theme of Fill Your Bucket List wishes is spending more time with loved ones – time for the burden of cancer to be lifted, “even for a little bit,” and for memories to be made, Otto said.
Many, Otto added, wish for ways to give back to or thank those who have helped them on the journey.
“It gives them something to look forward to,” she said. “It’s the power of hope.”
One of 22 wishes granted last year, Armstrong’s wish was a black history tour of Atlanta with her children.
Now, as she focuses on getting well again, Armstrong also zeroed in on helping us, her neighbors, by increasing understanding to raise awareness about screening and community resources, and to eliminate fear of colon cancer.
Colorectal cancer, or cancer of the colon or rectum, is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Each year, more than 53,500 die. It’s estimated that 145,000 men and women will be diagnosed with colon cancer this year.
With proper screening, however, colon and rectal cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable, Armstrong said, echoing a popular mantra in the fight.
“Get educated and get screened,” she said. “It’s very important. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You’ve got to know your body and know your bowels.
“And don’t play with pain. Where there’s pain, there’s a problem.”