A Gift of Love and Light
By Brad McEwen
Editor’s Note: This the third part in a special series where Brad goes Beyond the Bank to explore the impact cancer has had in multiple Southwest Georgia lives, and to highlight this year’s Phoebe Foundation Lights of Love tree lighters, whose incredible stories of hope and kindness provide inspiration for all and help fuel the important work Lights of Love in doing throughout the SOWEGA community.
Monique Wilson – Albany
While a cancer diagnosis might bring feelings of fear or anger for most folks, cancer survivor and patient advocate Monique Wilson had a bit of a different reaction upon learning back in 2016 that she had breast cancer.
“When people see me they see laughter,” said this year’s Phoebe Foundation Albany campus Lights of Love tree lighter during a recent interview. “They see joy. And I’m going to say people see that even more now because I feel I was given a new lease on life when I was diagnosed July 26, 2016 with breast cancer.”
For Monique—who currently leads the Phoebe Cancer Center’s survivorship program, while also serving as the lead coordinator for the Georgia chapter of the national Young Survival Coalition—turning that potentially devastating news into an internal rallying cry for positive, personal growth, has proven to be more than just a way for the usually-private New Jersey transplant to cope with the situation.
It also provided her with the strength to turn outward, using her own situation as motivation for helping others in their time of struggle.
“I hold quarterly meetings with young survivors who come here to Phoebe, as well as those in the community, who just need that shoulder to lean on, to talk to, and to encourage and support them on their journey as they go through the process of chemo and/or radiation, surgery and different things like that, which a person will have to go through when they are faced with cancer,” she explained. “I’ve been doing that since I was diagnosed four years ago.”
Additionally, Monique said that thanks to her work with the Young Survival Coalition, she can extend that love far beyond the Albany community she fell in love with back in 2005 when she followed husband Fred back to his hometown.
“My husband Fred and I, we partake in a fundraiser drive that we do every year,” Monique explained. “We started about three years ago as I became part of the Young Survival Coalition. It’s called ‘Tour de Pink.’ Every year in October, what we do is we take three days, a Friday, Saturday and Sunday and we ride these itty bitty bicycles we call road bikes, 200 miles.
“And I tell you Brad, it is awesome! When we get together for the Tour de Pink it’s hundreds of survivors, younger as well as older, that will come and join in. We put on our derbies and get on our bikes, pedaling up to 200 miles each year.”
Monique said she and Fred look forward to the event each year (with the exception of 2020 thanks to the ongoing Covid pandemic) and that she relishes the chance to ride for those who can’t ride for themselves and in memory of those who are no longer with us.
“It’s just a reminder, even those that have passed on, they are forever remembered,” said Monique. “We want to give back because many people look at cancer as a death sentence, but I look at it as a new life. That’s why I said that at the beginning, I was given a new life.”
Although she undoubtedly points to that fateful day in 2016 as being the start of her “new life,” in truth, the journey that put Monique firmly in a position to truly help others down an often difficult road, began a little over a decade prior when she and Fred made the decision to leave the Newark, New Jersey area where Monique had grown up to head south to Albany.
“I was born and raised in Newark, NJ, which we call the Brick City,” Monique explained. “I was born and raised there all my life, went to elementary, high school, all of it there. I got married in Newark.
“I would say it was amazing, but really it was time for a change. Growing up I experienced and saw a lot of things that a child should not see, if you know what I mean. And having my son, I did not want him to experience things of that nature. I know as you get older you’re going to see some things, you’re going to do some things, but at that time, I really believed it was time for a change for something better.
“So, after September 11, I’m going to say a year, two years maybe, a lot of things started happening with my husband’s job with Continental Airlines. And after his brothers had moved back here, home to Albany, Georgia, it was a question of whether we wanted to continue to stay up there or continue to head back to Fred’s home. By his brothers moving, of course, he was by himself, so he was becoming homesick.”
Monique added that at that time it had been a couple of years since her mother had passed away, and that in short succession her grandmother had gotten sick, her grandfather had passed away and her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which all furthered the decision to relocate to Albany.
“It was a lot going on,” she said. “I just felt like enough was enough and my mom was gone, my grandfather was gone, my grandmother was going to be ok because she had other children that were still in New Jersey, and I felt like, ‘I’m married now, it’s my time to enjoy my family with my husband.’
“So, a couple years after September 11 we decided to take a leap of faith and move here. And since then I’ve made Albany, Georgia, and Leesburg, GA, where we live, my home.”
Monique said it initially took some time for her to get settled in the Albany area, having to adjust to what she called “country life.”
“It was hard for me in the beginning because I was in an unknown town and I really didn’t know anybody,” she said. “So, all I had was my husband and my in-laws. It was hard for me, coming from being a city girl from Newark, to a country life, if you know what I mean. Even when I first started here [at Phoebe] people used to call me a foreigner because of the way I pronounced words, the way I speak. And it was very hard for me because to me, looking at things here, to how I was brought up and raised in New Jersey, it was a different culture.
“I had to learn how to be accepted, not only to myself, but to others here. And I’m going to be honest with you, I’m glad I did because it allowed me to meet new people who I not only call friends, but also call family. You know how we used to back in the day, growing up, we would say, ‘oh that’s my cousin,’ or ‘that’s my brother?’ I could call you family even though I know you’re not really family.”
In addition to building a new “family” after arriving in Southwest Georgia, Monique added that she was also fortunate to become a part of another family as well—the Phoebe family.
In addition to having her own role at Phoebe, Fred is also a part of that family, serving as one of the hospital’s “Red Coats,” who greet and transport patients when they’re on campus.
It was clear throughout our conversation how appreciative Monique is of her Phoebe family—which extends far beyond fellow employees to include patients and their caregivers as well.
But despite those feelings, Monique shared that it was difficult at first to transition from being an employee to a patient.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Monique began. “At that time, in 2016, I was working in another department before coming back over to the cancer center.
I used to work in the cancer center back in 2005, when I first started at Phoebe, so that cancer center was not new to me. I had moved up in another position within the hospital organization and when I was diagnosed and went through my primary treatments, I didn’t even share it with anyone. I didn’t share it with anybody, with my coworkers, no one.
“My husband knew, and his family, my in-laws, they knew. I didn’t even share it with my own family until the date of my surgery.”
At the time, Monique said her main concern was for her only son Josh and his young family. She said she was still coming to grips with her situation and didn’t want her son and his wife dealing with the fear that was starting to plague her.
“It was hard,” she said. “I was scared because I’m like, ‘I’m a Phoebe employee and now I’m becoming a patient in the cancer center.’ So, I was pretty scared. My first visit coming to the cancer center was very hard because now I was seeing myself on the other side. First, I’m a Phoebe employee, helping other patients and customers coming into our hospital. Now I’m finding myself needing the same help. That was very hard.”
Fortunately, thanks to her strong faith and the “amazing support” she received from Fred, it didn’t take long for Monique to conquer her fears and begin turning them into motivation for helping others.
Although Monique has had to endure her own cancer struggles since being diagnosed—including 33 radiation treatments and a lumpectomy—much of her focus stays firmly fixed on others and not on herself.
In addition to all she does through the YSC and through her job at Phoebe, Monique is always looking for ways to bring light, love and joy into the lives of others dealing with the difficulties of cancer.
“Another project I do is beauty bags,” Monique added. “When patients come and start their chemo it can be tough. And sometimes, like myself, you feel as though your security has now become insecurity and your confidence has become low.
“It’s like you don’t look the same anymore. You’re looking at scars. You’re looking at your hair loss, you’re looking at your eyelashes gone. So, I came up with something, which is just a beauty bag, to remind the ladies, ‘you’re still beautiful, not only on the outside, but on the inside as well.’”
Part of what motivates Monique to do little things like the beauty bags is her own experience and the hard time she had letting others know what was going on with her.
Even though she knew her Phoebe family would be there to assist with her treatments, it was still hard for her to allow herself to be seen as a person who needed help, as opposed to the one giving it.
In fact, it was that feeling of being alone during her treatments that has motivated her to be there for others and to encourage them to lean on the Lord for strength and guidance.
“I was doing everything for everybody else and even though I knew my husband was there, and my in-laws were there, I felt alone,” Monique said. “Even when people said, ‘Oh Monique, just call me if you need me,’ I felt alone. As I went through my process and my journey through 33 treatments of radiation, every day, and still managed to come to work, leave work, and go to my treatments, I felt alone. I really did. But I thank God for the power of prayer and faith.”
While keeping what she was going through to herself certainly made things more challenging, Monique said she relied heavily on her faith to guide her and she knows that whatever God put her through, He was doing for a reason.
“I thank God for the power of prayer,” she said. “Because deep down, I really believe that what I went through I was going through to help somebody else in their process.”
Although it’s been four years since her surgery, Monique is still taking hormonal therapy—something she’ll be doing for a few more years—but her focus remains firmly on the well-being of others.
“My journey has not been easy,” she said. “But I’m striving every day.
“The advice that I could give to anyone facing breast cancer, or any kind of cancer or health issue, is don’t give up. Stay in the race.
“One of the scriptures in the Bible it tells us that the race is not given to the swift nor to the strong, but to the one that endures to the end. I know deep down that all of our help comes from the man above.”
There’s no denying Monique’s outlook and attitude are crucial elements, not only in her own struggle, but in her ability to support the needs of others, facing similar difficulties. As I witnessed firsthand as my own father valiantly battled colorectal cancer, there’s few things as critical as remaining positive and staying connected to faith.
Monique will once again get an opportunity to minister and send love to others battling cancer in just a few weeks when the Phoebe Foundation hosts this year’s Lights of Love tree lighting ceremony.
Due to concerns around Covid, that event will be held virtually, on Thursday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. To watch the ceremony guests can visit Facebook @Phoebe Foundation or at lights-of-love.org
To learn more about Lights of Love and the myriad things this initiative is doing to better the lives of countless cancer patients across southern Georgia, visit lights-of-love.org
And be sure to mark your calendar for this year’s Tree Lighting ceremonies at Phoebe’s three area campuses.
Tree Lighting Schedule
Worth County: Phoebe Worth Medical Center (807 S. Isabella St., Sylvester); Tuesday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m.
Albany (virtual): Facebook @Phoebe Foundation or at lights-of-love.org, Thursday, Dec. 3; 7 p.m.
Sumter County**: Phoebe Sumter Medical Center (126 Hwy. 280 W., Americus); Tuesday, Dec. 8; 6 p.m.
**Hosted by Phoebe Sumter Foundation
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - email@example.com - @BradGMcEwen