October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and this is the first episode of a four-story series on breast cancer survivors from metro Atlanta. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States. Nearly 300,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, according to data provided by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in both Black and White people, after heart disease and though less people are dying from breast cancer than ever before, there are very few people whose lives haven’t been affected by the deadly disease in some way. With this series, Faces of Survival, The Atlanta Voice will introduce four people that have looked at breast cancer in the face and lived to tell their stories. There are millions of cancer success stories to tell.
These are their stories.
Angie O’Neal, 55, Atlanta, Ga.
Angie O’Neal has vivid memories of the time she found a lump on her right breast. The year was 2006 and she was doing what she loved, making jewelry, when she dropped a bead down her shirt. Laughing at herself for being so clumsy, she went to retrieve it when found something else entirely. O’Neal, 55, and in her late 30’s at the time, found a lump.
Thinking back to that day, O’Neal, a native of Washington, D.C. and longtime Atlanta resident, remembers how she made sure to finish the jewelry order she was working on. It was for an upcoming wedding and the work had to be done in a timely manner.
“My first reaction was ‘whoa what is this?,’” she remembered. “When I realized that it was out of the ordinary it scared me that breast cancer came to mind. But there was nothing I could do about it at that point so I had to get the order done.”
She continued, “At this moment I thought I had to get this done and get on with my life,” she said. “I was going to figure that stuff out in the morning. I refused to allow it to consume me.”
Her way of thinking might have saved her life. O’Neal, a database specialist with the Morehouse School of Medicine, has been married to her husband Kenny O’Neal for nearly 30 years and the couple have three daughters, Joa, 30, Nika, 27 and Taryn 23. She credits that mental toughness to her father and stepmother and the strength of her support system that also includes close friends.
Kenny remembered waiting for his wife outside the hospital the day their worst fears were realized. He described the look on her face when he saw her walk out of the doors towards the parking lot where he waited.
“The minute I saw her face I knew,” Kenny said. “My initial reaction was fear.”
There were kids to take to school, meals to cook, but Kenny said he too was focussed on what the job at hand was to panic. “I was scared but I had to step it up.”
O’Neal said she couldn’t tell the kids so she counted on Kenny to do that the first time. Joa was barely a teenager and Nika and Taryn were just 10 and 6, respectively. The second time around might have been more difficult for the girls because they were much older than during the first diagnosis.
One Tuesday evening after work she was asked what motivates and brings her peace in the aftermath of having survived breast cancer twice. O’Neal, accompanied by her daughter’s grayish pitbull Cash, looked up and said, “A beautiful day like today.”
She also enjoys running, which she got into in a big way after the initial diagnosis. Since then O’Neal has participated in an unknown number of 5K and 10K races, 25 half-marathons and five marathons to date. “Running makes me happy,” she said. “It really got me through the second time around.”
Kenny and the girls completely understand how much running means to O’Neal. With 11 Peachtree Road Races under her belt, O’Neal expects to run many more. She even convinced Joa to run with her one Independence Day. Her doctors advised her to keep doing the things that she loved.
“To see how she runs, she is so passionate about life,” Kenny said.
O’Neal’s motto is simple: Keep moving.
A legend in the making
A gold “legend” pendant is one of O’Neal’s favorite pieces of jewelry. A friend she made within the running community, Janie Douglas, made it for her and a few other runners. O’Neal keeps that necklace and pendant close because of what it meant to her to have Douglas give it as a gift. “Because she thought that of me, I think I should wear it everyday,” she said. “To get that from her really means something.”
O’Neal also makes jewelry and often doubles as a merchant and runner at local races.
From doctors to family members to support groups, which she also credits for building that crucial support, O’Neal wants other Breast cancer patients, survivors and their families to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
“What helped me was to hold on to my support system,” she said. “Grab on to those people that you know are there for you. Try not to take all of this on by yourself. Give it to God.”
Marks made to last a lifetime
O’Neal had to face the fact that breast cancer was back in 2016, a decade after her first diagnosis. The return of breast cancer, in the same breast, after a decade was hard to swallow, but she was better prepared, she said. She would make the decision to undergo a mastectomy of her right breast, forgoing a double mastectomy because as she put it, “that breast wasn’t sick so I didn’t see the point in removing it.”
A tattoo of a lotus flower remains in place of the breast. The only flower that rises from the ground without a stain, the lotus is a universal symbol of crossing cultures. O’Neal believes it much more than that to her and others that survive breast cancer.
“To me it’s a symbol of what it really is, something that was taken from broken to beautiful,” she said.
That’s Angie O’Neal: broken to beautiful to broken and back again.
“She’s awesome,” says Kenny.