Multi-colored confetti covered the floor. “Celebration” played from a karaoke microphone. The impromptu party playing out at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center’s newest treatment location inside Baton Rouge General’s Pennington Cancer Center was indeed a celebration – the first of its kind since the Cancer Center and BRG announced a collaboration last year. In the middle of the excitement, clad in pink, was the guest of honor, Audrey Riley, who was there to ring the bell marking the completion of her treatment for stage 3 breast cancer.
But getting to that jubilant day in late April of this year was a journey for Audrey, whose battle with cancer first presented itself in late November 2020.
As she did most days after finishing her shift at Walmart, where she worked for nearly three decades, Audrey worked out at a local gym. It wasn’t until she got home and showered that she noticed what would alter her life.
“That’s when I found a knot,” Audrey said. “I was so scared.”
She quickly made an appointment with her primary care physician and scheduled a mammogram. The results, delivered in early 2021, would show Audrey had Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
“I freaked out,” Audrey recalled.
The initial shock over the diagnosis quickly subsided as she met with her doctor, Sanjay Juneja, MD, medical oncologist, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, to discuss her treatment plan.
“I was very comfortable with the decisions that Dr. Juneja made,” Audrey said. “I was prepared for anything that came to me.”
Audrey quickly began weekly chemotherapy. Now out of work, she saw the treatments as her job. Oddly enough, she explains, she started looking forward to her appointments, where she always arrived dressed in pink from head to toe.
“I kept a smile on my face,” Audrey said. “I was happy to go get my chemo. That might sound crazy, but that’s the way I felt. God had my back and I was going to get through this.”
She was determined, she says, to not wallow in grief, instead choosing to rely on her faith.
“If you’re going to pray, why worry,” she asked.
Audrey quickly became comfortable with the staff and Dr. Juneja, whom she describes as “lovely,” making for a smoother treatment process for her.
That’s not to say the road to her bell ringing was easy. One of the hardest moments came one week into chemo when she lost all of her hair.
That obstacle wouldn’t keep Audrey down for long. She says she decided to accept the things that were out of her control, instead choosing to focus on the “work” of beating cancer.
“I wasn’t scared anymore, Audrey said defiantly. “I took it like a champ.”
Week by week, the finish line, in this case that bell ringing, was coming into better focus. The closer it got, the greater the anticipation became for Audrey.
“I had determination to finish this race,” she said. “I wasn’t giving up.”
Finally, April 25 arrived, the day Audrey would become the inaugural bell ringer. And of course, she was dressed in her signature pink.
There were some nerves about actually ringing the bell. But after a quick tutorial, Audrey confidently grabbed the rope and let it rip. After several rings, accompanied by a chorus of applause, the cancer survivor smiled ear to ear.
Looking back on that day, Audrey is consumed with pride. Her ‘No More Chemo’ certificate, covered in well wishes from infusion center team members, is displayed near her front door. To her, the colorful cardstock keepsake is a lot more than a piece of paper.
“It’s a lot more than that to me,” she said. “It’s an achievement. I accomplished this. I earned this certificate. I worked at it and I passed that test.”
A few more procedures still lie ahead for Audrey, but she says she’s ready for any and all challenges. When asked what her message would be for others who are just starting the journey she has completed, it was simple: check your body. Listen to your body.
But, as she did throughout the course of the interview, Audrey returned to her faith, even reciting the prayer she says carried her through both the good and bad days.
“If I can do it, you can do it,” she exclaimed. “Whoever else is going through this, just keep the faith.”
Filled with gratitude herself, photos of Audrey from throughout her treatment fill her pristinely-decorated living room. They remind her of all she’s accomplished.
“I fought that fight.”