Twenty-two years ago, Scarlett Gibbs’ oncologist told her she had only four months to live. She had been diagnosed with stage IV inflammatory breast cancer, an unusual and aggressive disease in which cancer grows in the lymph vessels, blocking movement and causing the breast to feel warm and swollen.
Now 59 years old, Scarlett is an active advocate in the breast cancer community and a genuine example that even in the face of statistics, every woman’s journey is unique.
In 1990, says Scarlett, death wasn’t on her mind. Even as the oncologist told her otherwise, the 36-year-old knew that she would live because of a deep-rooted faith that God had a purpose for her. Scarlett’s family has 15 members in ministry, and the faith she knew grounded her throughout her treatment. Four days after her diagnosis, Scarlett attended a Christian retreat at Blue Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania. It was there that she heard God reassure her that she had things left to do.
“I believe that God gave me an opportunity to prove that you can live with this disease,” she says.
Scarlett’s adoptive mother cared for her after her diagnosis and through chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation therapy. Scarlett never felt sick, but severe radiation burns made it uncomfortable to wear clothing. Nothing could touch the skin around the treatment area without causing Scarlett pain. Her adoptive grandmother came one day with a homemade mixture of anointing oils that she used to treat Scarlett’s burns. Soon after, the burns and pain subsided. Her oncologist was even amazed.
“He said to me at one point, ‘You really are trying to change medical science,’” Scarlett says.
Two years later, her adoptive mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Scarlett and her caregiver reversed roles, and this time Scarlett saw what it was like to care for another person dealing with such a disease. The experience inspired her to do more for the cancer community.
She began attending conferences to learn about inflammatory breast cancer and meet other women like her. One of those conferences was C4YW, the Annual Conference for Young Women Affected by Breast Cancer presented by LBBC and Young Survival Coalition. Even two decades later, Scarlett is connected with the unique experience of being diagnosed young.
“I went to the conference and there was so much energy, and women talking to each other and supporting each other,” she says. “And I thought,‘Hey, this is what I want to do.’”
And she has. In the years since, Scarlett has become actively involved in advocacy through at least nine breast cancer organizations. She volunteers her time to speak, participate in walks and work in ministry. For the month of October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – she’s busy every weekend with events.Some are speaking engagements, while others are walks of solidarity, like the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, a 60-mile walk Scarlett has participated in for six years in a row; the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk; and the annual Miracle Faith Walk Celebrating Scarlett, an event which honors her.
“I do this because I have sisters and nieces and aunts and goddaughters who deserve it,” says Scarlett. “Anytime I speak, I tell people: you have to make a decision. You have to choose life. You have cancer, but cancer does not have to have you.”
Photo by Laurie Beck Photography
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