Joyce Penny is a 2012 Hero of Hope with the American Cancer Society

Monday, May 7, 2012
Relay for Life co-chair Joyce Penny, right, reads a card from Rachel Peck and other members of the Colleges Against Cancer group at Southeast Missouri State during the 2012 Relay for Life for Cape County Saturday, April 28, at Arena Park in Cape Girardeau. Penny is the faculty adviser for the group. (ADAM VOGLER)

Joyce Penny relays because she doesn't want her children and grandchildren to hear the word "cancer" from their doctor. But she doesn't just "Relay for Life" -- she leads teams for the American Cancer Society fundraiser, raises funds on her own and tells everyone she knows what a difference the organization can make for them. A four-year survivor of cancer, she's also participating in a clinical trial and is a 2012 Hero of Hope in the ACS High Plains Division.

"I do everything full force,"says Penny, a 58-year-old Jackson resident. "I have a lot more I have to do."

Penny's journey with cancer started in August 2007, when she began having a lot of abdominal pain. She tried to ignore the pain because she was busy with her job, and she assumed it had something to do with nearing the end of menopause. But on Jan. 29, 2008, the pain became more severe and it never left. She went to the hospital around midnight, and on Feb. 6, 2008, she was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

"All I heard was lymphoma, blah, blah, blah," she says. She couldn't absorb what the doctor was telling her, and she spent the rest of the afternoon playing a computer game and crying. Her husband came in several times to ask if she was OK, and she responded that she just had to get to the next level.

"That was true of the game and of my initial shock," she says.

Penny had seven biopsies through her back -- all the tumors were in her chest and abdomen -- and began seeing a lymphoma specialist in St. Louis. She started having chemotherapy treatments within a month. She lost her hair, had neuropathy in her hands and felt ill much of the time. Penny's faith, family and friends helped her get through it all, and she's been in remission since September 2008. She still has blood tests and exams every four months and CT scans every year. There's always a chance it could come back, but Penny keeps a positive outlook and sense of humor and doesn't dwell on it.

"I'm just so darn grateful to be alive," she says. "I've always been a glass half-full type of person."

Penny first contacted the American Cancer Society on the day she was diagnosed.

Relay for Life co-chair Joyce Penny, holds her grand daughter Olivia while talking to her friend and fellow Relay team member Leslie Walker, who is dressed as the Muppet Animal, during the 2012 Relay for Life for Cape County Saturday, April 28, at Arena Park in Cape Girardeau. (ADAM VOGLER)

"I told them I just got diagnosed and I need all the information I can get," she says. She later received a gas gift card for traveling to and from doctor appointments, a free wig and attended a "Look Good, Feel Better" session. In 2009, she attended a survivor breakfast and walk for the ACS Relay for Life and stopped by the relay event later. She walked away knowing she would start a team for 2010. She did just that, actually starting two teams: One at the university and one at her church. Before she knew it, she was a mission chair, then logistics co-chair, then event co-chair. Next year, she will chair the event in Cape Girardeau.

The ACS Hero of Hope Awards were presented Sept. 30 at a ceremony in Dallas. Penny doesn't know who nominated her for the award, but she's spent the past several months meeting the 26 other cancer survivors and caregivers in the High Plains Division (Hawaii, Guam, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas), going through "hero training" and sharing her story at club meetings, cancer events, churches and more.

Also, as a Hero of Hope, Penny had to set a goal for 2012.

"I never set small goals, so I decided to get Colleges Against Cancer started on Southeast Missouri State University's campus," says Penny. Within a couple weeks, the group was sanctioned by the ACS and the university. Penny serves as staff adviser to the student group, which works to promote cancer awareness, advocacy and prevention programs on campus, and participates in ACS-approved fundraisers.

"I've never thought why me. I love to talk and I love to help others. I don't have much of a filter on what I am willing to share, so why not me? I survived this so that I can help others facing cancer," Penny says in her Hero of Hope speeches. "I have always been a good 'fox hole prayer.' But I am a more grateful person now. My prayers always begin with thank you. After counting my blessings, I ask God for strength to get me through whatever is to come."

How to live like a survivor

1. Enjoy the time that you have. "As horrible as cancer is, it does give you time," says Penny -- time to let others know how much you love them, and time to analyze and decide the best treatment options.

2. Surround yourself with life. "Don't let it be this overpowering disease," says Penny. She understands why some people feel bitter or depressed by a diagnosis of cancer, or any other disease. But her best advice is to get out of the house, do things you enjoy and spend time with others.

3. Keep things in perspective. Penny had a rough time when she started losing her hair. She let herself cry for more than 25 minutes, then realized: "I was throwing up last week, and this doesn't even hurt. It can be worse." She had her beautician shave the rest of her hair off, and her boss was right there with her, shaving his head in support of Penny.

4. Stay away from medical websites on the Internet. Penny's doctor told her that most sites would only scare her, and they might not even be credible. Penny followed this advice and only visited the American Cancer Society's website, www.cancer.org. The ACS 24/7 hotline, 800-227-2345, is an excellent resource, she adds.

5. Lean on others. It may be tempting to isolate yourself or keep whatever you're going through a secret, even from friends and family. Talking to others is what helped Penny the most. She even wrote "cancer buddy" emails twice a week to keep all her friends and family in the loop. They shared her news with others, and soon Penny was getting encouraging cards and emails from people she didn't even know.

6. Keep it light. Penny is an outgoing, fun-loving woman with a great sense of humor, and that didn't change when she got cancer. She acquired four very different wigs, named them Betty, Veronica, Midge and Marilyn, and had fun deciding who she got to be every morning. She once had a party with "Scarlett No'Haira" cheesecake. And her girlfriends went with her to every treatment and they "partied before poison" by going shopping, out to dinner or sightseeing in St. Louis.

7. Take a tape recorder to appointments. "If you're like me, you hear 'cancer' and 'chemo' and nothing after that," says Penny. Recording appointments gives you plenty of time later to review and digest the information.

8. Remember that there are survivors. Too many of us instantly link cancer to death, says Penny, forgetting that there are millions of survivors.

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