By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
For 12 years, they were just co-workers who patrolled the cavernous halls of a Cook County Jail. Over time, something special developed at work between Lynnita Watson-Peavy, 54, Theita Richardson, 53, and Marisol Bednarik, 41. For the past nine years, they’ve been friends who have had each others’ backs on the job and on the streets. On the social circuit, they became inseparable, taking trips to movies and their favorite restaurants.
But when Watson-Peavy was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer last April, they became soldiers in a tough war where the three of them teamed up to defeat one big problem.
Their friendship is a story about the undying sisterhood of three Cook County Corrections officers whose love for one another was tested to its limits while fighting to save their friend’s life. Watson-Peavy’s story gives a glimpse into the world of three minority women who forged a tight support group not often shown in the media, and one that doesn’t come so easily for women of color because of social and economic barriers.
Advocate Trinity Hospital has been Watson-Peavy’s battleground. Since April, Richardson and Bednarik have driven many, many miles to help the sick, quiet Black married mother of two, fight a battle that many must struggle to win on their own. Chemotherapy is the only option that thousands of women must go through to destroy a deadly disease that has claimed the lives of women across the country, especially Black women.
Many have died alone while fighting breast cancer, but Watson-Peavy’s friends set out to make sure she wouldn’t be among that statistic. Along the way, the friendship among the trio deepened as they each felt the pain and suffering of a disease that none of them had experienced and one which they knew nothing about.
There were painful moments that cemented their sisterhood and provided Watson-Peavy the powerful support group she needed during the most difficult period in her life—one where she was forced out of her quiet shell and comfort zone.
In a patient room at Advocate Trinity Hospital, the three sat down during an interview. There, Watson-Peavy shared her story with a Chicago Crusader reporter.
Her journey started last spring. For months, Watson-Peavy had felt a lump on her breast, but thought nothing of it. Like most women, she put off going to the doctor to have it checked out. Watson-Peavy’s mother and other women in her family had no history of breast cancer. In early 2017, Watson-Peavy learned that her cousin had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
At the end of April, Watson-Peavy went in to Advocate Trinity Hospital near the historic Pill Hill neighborhood, and after undergoing a mammogram, she was diagnosed with early Stage 2 breast cancer.
Although she is quiet, Watson-Peavy’s friends say she is quick to tell one the truth about how she feels about things, not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but to help them grow. With a tough exterior, Watson-Peavy is not used to being vulnerable or open with her emotions; the news changed the rest of her life.
“I was blown away,” Watson-Peavy recalled. “I had these lumps for a long time, but I didn’t think anything of it.”
The lump was a malignant tumor whose cancerous cells had spread to her lymph nodes, which help the immune system protect the body from illnesses.
Richardson recalled the day she received the news of her friend’s diagnosis.
“Oh, Jesus. She texted me,” Richardson says. “I was sitting in bed watching TV. I was off that day. I looked at the text for a long time. I said to myself, ‘Ok, I got to keep it together.’ When I called, I was crying more than she was. It was devastating to me, but I could only imagine what she was going through.”
When she received the news about Watson-Peavy’s breast cancer diagnosis, Bednarik said, “I couldn’t believe it. It was just so hard to take in.”
Since the cancer was in its early stages, Watson-Peavy had a higher chance of surviving the disease than those diagnosed with Stages 3 and 4 breast cancer. Despite the good prognosis, challenging treatments would make Watson-Peavy’s road to being cancer-free a tough one.
In July, she had a mastectomy, a 2-3 hour surgery where doctors removed one of her breasts to prevent the cancer from spreading. Every two weeks, Watson-Peavy underwent a string of one-and-a half hour chemotherapy treatments to remove the cancerous cells in her lymph nodes. Now, the chemotherapy treatments are three-hour sessions.
Her nurse, Deanna Bruce, has become a friendly face and she checks for body weight and blood pressure. In between, Watson-Peavy had to take medication to offset side effects. Since July, Watson-Peavy has been on medical leave from work in order to do all this. The process may seem long and challenging, but Watson-Peavy’s friends attended every chemotherapy session. They were there when she had the mastectomy.
While Watson-Peavy was still able to take care of family, some days she was too tired to do anything for them. Richardson once drove Watson-Peavy’s son to soccer practice and his self-defense class. She also picked him and his stepmother up from school and drove them home. Bednarik would bring food to Watson-Peavy.
“It does humble you, because you begin to think about your life,” Watson-Peavy said.
Richardson and Bednarik must drive from the far Northwest suburbs to Chicago. Though this may seem like a challenge, the two consider it just another part of their devotion to one another.
Watson-Peavy says, “They will get in their cars and get me and we’ll go do girl stuff or get something to eat. They keep me constantly moving because I’ve had the lowest of the low moments. You have those moments when they’re not around and you’re just tired. I would call them or they would coincidentally call me.”
Then there are the moments when Richardson and Bednarik must show tough love to their friend.
“They sometime [sic] have to force me to do things,” Watson-Peavy said. “Sometimes I have my moments, and they will allow it for a while before they say okay, that’s enough.”
That’s when Richardson stepped in and said, “You get one day (to express your emotions), but I say, ‘We’re not going down that road anymore.’”
Doctors say these types of relationships are healthy and necessary for breast cancer patients who are forced to endure a grueling procedure that can discourage and cause patients to quit fighting to be cured. They say the demands of shaving one’s hair and removing an important part of the body often leaves women feeling unattractive to their men or their husbands. Loneliness has often been a problem for women battling breast cancer.
According to a recent report, loneliness may prevent breast cancer survival.
Based on data from nearly 10,000 breast cancer patients, researchers linked isolation with a 40 percent higher risk of cancer recurrence, compared to socially-connected women.
The study found that isolated women also had a 60 percent increased risk of dying from breast cancer and a 70 percent increased risk of dying from any cause.
For Black women, finding friends can be more challenging. Social and economic challenges, along with the emotional and psychological challenges that come with breast cancer, can be just as devastating as the disease itself. Doctors are seeing an increased number of women having mammograms, but Black women are still dying at a higher rate—more than any other ethnic group.
In 2015, fewer than 20 out of every 100,000 white women with breast cancer died, while nearly 30 Black women out of every 100,000 were killed by the disease.
Cassie Richardson, manager and marketing director for Advocate Trinity Hospital, stated that Advocate Trinity Hospital offers a support group that gives women of various ethnic groups the opportunity to establish healthy friendships. This month, Richardson added, the Chicago-based Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority donated 100 care baskets for breast cancer patients as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Watson-Peavy will still need her friends once she is free of cancer. She has at least three more months of chemotherapy treatments. After she is cancer-free, she must still return for check-ups and receive counseling. With her husband and children and a tight friendship, she has lots of support.
“I don’t think I would have been as strong if it weren’t for these two women,” she said. “My friends were there for me. They said, ‘You’re going to be ok’.”