HOUSTON, October 25, 2012 – Lisa Benford’s training as a microbiologist had prepared her to study rare and fatal illnesses such as tuberculosis, the world’s second most deadly disease. Nothing, though, could have prepared her for the horrific diagnoses she and her mother received eight years apart.
Both women were diagnosed with breast cancer.
Their tale of survival was so compelling that Ford Motor Co. named them Warriors of Pink/Models of Courage for 2012. Benford, biological safety officer at the University of Houston, and her mother, Ruby Wilson, were among 11 women and men chosen nationwide to serve as models of courage for the company’s charitable apparel line.
The program provides Benford with an opportunity to share her story, which she hopes will inspire men and women afflicted with breast cancer, as well as raise awareness about the importance of early detection and cancer research. Her own ordeal began in March 2008 when she learned she had the disease.
“I was shocked,” Benford said. “My first thoughts were my doctor had mixed my mom’s chart with mine, because we have the same doctor and I had taken my mammogram on schedule, a year and a day after my last one. He told me he had the right chart, that he wanted biopsies of some areas and that it looked like a ductal type of breast cancer.”
The days following the diagnosis were chaotic. Her sons, 14-year-old Trey and 10-year-old Joshua; her brother, Stacy; and other family members took the news hard. Her mother, who had battled the disease in 2000, “went silent when I told her and then she cried,” Benford said. Her husband, Bennie, was devastated.
“Just a few months ago, he told me exactly what he was feeling at that time. He told me he had asked God for a wife. When I got the diagnosis, he thought ‘God, you can’t take that wife away from me because you gave her to me.’ He thought he was going to lose me, so he prayed. He said God told him that ‘she will be with you to help you raise your children.’”
Benford struggled with her own doubt as well.
“I went through a period of wondering why this was the path God had chosen for me,” she said, recalling the night she received the diagnosis when her husband tried to persuade her to attend Bible study at their church.
“I asked him, ‘Why are we going? It does no good. If you're doing what you're supposed to do, if you’re going to church, serving God, then why is this cancer in me?’” Benford said. “I was angry, but I'm so happy I went. I cried so much at that service.”
Eventually Benford overcame her anger, but she faced even more challenges and fear. A day after her first operation in March 2008 at Methodist Hospital, she could barely breathe. “I was given this tube with a ball inside, and I was supposed to breath hard enough to move the ball up. I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I’m so glad that my mother was with me.”
Wilson, a nurse at Methodist, alerted the hospital staff. Benford was immediately rushed to the intensive care unit. She stayed in ICU for four days, recuperating from blood clots that had formed in her legs and lungs. After the crisis had passed, Benford spent several nights, lying awake in her hospital bed, afraid to sleep because “I thought I was going to die,” she said.
Over time and with her family’s support, she soon resumed her life as a wife, mother and as a UH staff member. She credits her recovery, both physically and mentally, to her faith, doctors, family and friends.
Now, Benford and Wilson, both of whom are cancer free, are active in the fight against breast cancer. They participate in activities sponsor by the Sisters Network, an African-American breast cancer survivorship organization, and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Houston, which nominated them for the Ford honor.
Since being selected as Warriors in Pink/Models of Courage earlier this year, the two have been busy, representing the company at the Houston Art Car parade and appearing in videos posted on Ford’s Facebook page and website and in ads published this month in various women’s magazines.
Despite all the media attention and her hectic schedule, Benford manages to make time to offer counsel and comfort to people with breast cancer and similar health problems. She advises women and men to know their bodies, to get yearly mammograms and physical exams and, if diagnosed with cancer, to have a spiritual foundation and the support of family and friends.
Looking back on her own experience, Benford said although her journey wasn’t easy, “everything works for good for those who love God.”