- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

NORTH CORTLAND, Ala. (AP) - It was Della Taylor’s mother, Rosie Bowman, who taught her how to live life.

Despite Bowman’s 28-year battle with breast cancer, she kept busy by running The Family Cafe in Courtland, a restaurant that was a big part of Taylor’s childhood.

Taylor, 50, said people couldn’t tell the cancer was spreading to her mother’s liver, lungs and brain. Bowman earned the nickname “Sweet Sixteen” because she never let the grass grow under her feet. She traveled to Chicago, Las Vegas, California and Germany.

Bowman died in 2007, but Taylor still considers her mother a conqueror. The cancer poisoned her body, but not her spirit.

“My mother showed us how to live. She also showed us how to die,” Taylor said. “She never complained or doubted God. I feel like she’s living on through me. She’s my inspiration, motivator and cheerleader.”

In September 2009, Taylor learned she was about to go through a battle of her own. Her doctor detected an abnormality in a biopsy. The diagnosis - Stage 2, triple-negative breast cancer - sent a numbing fear through her.

According to the American Cancer Society, it is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. None of the typical cancer treatments, such as hormone receptors, would work for her. Only 15 to 20 percent of patients are diagnosed with this strain.

Doctors gave her a 30 percent chance to live. Taylor decided to make the most of whatever time she had left.

She became more active in the community. In May, she opened Dell Lee’s Comfort Cafe off Jesse Jackson Parkway, where the scent of chicken fingers and catfish greets people at the door.

She makes extra meals for cancer patients because she knows how it feels to sit in chemotherapy for hours without food. Taylor said the restaurant fulfills a command she heard a few years ago.

“Everyone has a calling in their lives,” Taylor said. “It may not be to preach, but we are all ministers in our own way. I know my purpose was to serve others.”

News of Taylor’s illness saddened friends and family, including childhood friend Sharon Shackelford.

“We are like sisters. Even though we’re not biologically related, it still took a toll on me,” Shackelford said. “She’s a true friend and a fighter. In return, I told her, ‘I’m here for you, regardless of what goes on.’ “

Taylor and her husband, Alex, were married a year before she was diagnosed. With no experience around cancer patients, Alex was presented a game plan by his wife for what to expect.

“I don’t like to show my emotions a lot, but when the cancer started creeping in, it changed me,” Alex Taylor said. “I didn’t want to lose my wife.”

It took several doctor consultations to convince Della Taylor that 16 rounds of chemotherapy were what she needed to survive. The treatment reminded her of her mother’s skin, burnt black from radiation, and how she went blind after taking a harsh medication made to block the cancer.

Fear was ever-present, but like her mother, Della continued the fight and remained positive. When her hair started to fall out after her first round of chemo in January 2010, her daughter and grandson hosted a party for her. She sat and smiled as they trimmed and shaved off the rest of her hair.

While other patients called the chemotherapy “Red Devil” because of its color, Della Taylor called it “the blood of Jesus.” She prayed over it before the nurse dispensed it, and tried to encourage others by showing her faith.

“I wanted to encourage them that God is in control,” Taylor said.

She continued to work though her illness. During the day, she continued at Alabama A&M; University teaching individuals living on federal supplemental nutritional aid how to make healthy choices on a limited budget. At night, she still managed city government issues as North Courtland’s town clerk.

In between, she continued to help her community, catering for a wedding at a discount price because she knows how hard it is for newlyweds starting out. Her husband didn’t always approve of her busy schedule while she was sick.

“Whenever I tried to tell her to sit down and stop being everything for everybody, she responded that she is here for a reason. So she will be serving people until her last,” he said.

But Taylor admits she wasn’t strong all the time. After a few rounds of chemo, the sound of laughter annoyed her, her bones ached as if a screwdriver was drilling into the marrow and the smell of food made her stomach churn. Even the tears that rolled down her face burned as she begged God to take her life to free her from the pain.

“Two days (after treatment), I couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “By the time you feel better again, it’s time to take another treatment. You just keep going in that cycle.”

Alex Taylor remained her rock while she was weak. He gave her bed baths when water was too sensitive for her skin and made meals that didn’t include collard greens or greasy food.

“I wanted her to act like this was just a thing,” he said. “This was just a test from God to see if we rely on him or will we fall apart.”

Co-workers, supervisors and even her 4-year-old grandson held her hand during chemotherapy. Ministers, elders of churches and congregation members she didn’t know brought her flowers, anointed her head with oil and showered her with prayers.

“I believe that by receiving those prayers, along with God’s healing power, I received the healing,” Taylor said.

She also had the benefit of modern science, which has made breast cancer survival significantly more common.

In the 1950s, breast cancer sufferers had a 25-percent survival rate, according to statistics from M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. Today that number is closer to 80 percent.

Dr. Aman Buzdar, professor of medicine and breast medical oncology at M.D. Anderson, told an American Society for Clinical Oncology broadcast that appropriately managed patients have a much better chance of surviving breast cancer than 20, 30, or even 10 years ago, because therapies are constantly evolving and improving.

In June, Taylor’s doctors told her she was cancer free. Now she’s required to get a mammogram only once a year. Her husband said she isn’t the same person that he married. She’s stronger.

“When a spouse gets sick, then you really figure out who they are because you talk with them more and are around them more,” Taylor said. “Before she was afraid, but she’s not afraid anymore. She’s more of a people person now.”

But Della’s battle with cancer continues. She guards against its return and researches information online and shares her findings with friends and family. She pushes them to have mammograms and gives them resources on how to find cancer insurance.

Little did she know she was setting an example for a close friend. In July 2012, a few months after Shackelford took Taylor’s advice and had a mammogram, Shackelford was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She worried about so many things, including how she was going to care for her two children.

Seeing Taylor handle the illness was encouraging and motivating, helping Shackleford keep strong through her own battle until the last treatment in February.

“I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’ ” Shackelford said.

Della Taylor is cancer-free, but she doesn’t want to slow down. She wants to own a food truck soup kitchen and hire teenagers part-time for the summer. She’s encouraging cancer patients to let their inner beauty show during her Pink and Winter White Gala in January. Most importantly, she wants to remain open about her battle so she can show others how cancer is not a death sentence.

“If I die today, I know I had a good life,” Della Taylor said. “I had good and bad times. I’ve laughed and cried, but I wouldn’t trade any of the bad moments because it made me the woman that I am today.”

___

Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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