“God has orchestrated things—and I can clearly see that.”
That is Maria Arledge’s response when asked about her 14-month journey with breast cancer.
Arledge has served as the front desk receptionist at the Christian Mission Center headquarters in Enterprise since 1997. Her mother, Linda, has served in the same office for nearly three decades as bookkeeper/office manager. “I’m sure she would say ‘just bookkeeper,’” Arledge said with a smile. “But (Christian Mission Executive Director) Brother Johnny (Belcher) would say office manager, as well.”
Arledge’s mother and younger sister, Michelle, have been “prayer warriors” and “emotional support giants” through a journey that began with the discovery of a dimple on her right breast, Arledge is quick to stress.
Arledge’s church family at Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church in Ozark and her work family at the Christian Mission Center have been a huge support team as well, she said. “I kept working through all this,” Arledge said. “That was my prayer. I said, ‘Lord, I have to work. If I have to have chemotherapy, how am I going to be able to work?’”
In July 2019 Arledge first knew that something was wrong because she noticed a dimple on her right breast. When it didn’t disappear over the next couple of days, she decided that she needed to get it checked by a doctor. Calling the family’s internal medicine doctor for an initial examination, she was immediately referred by him for a mammogram.
“The time waiting for an appointment for the mammogram was the longest that I waited for things to get started,” Arledge said about the imaging test that was scheduled for the following month. The Aug. 6, 2019 mammogram revealed cancer—ductal type breast adenocarcinoma.
“Fear gripped me for about two or three days—even before I had a diagnosis,” Arledge said. “I will tell you I was petrified. I functioned but was very emotional.”
And then came the game changer, Arledge said. “I went to get some lunch for mother and me that day,” Arledge recalled. “Coming back up Daleville Avenue, a peace came over me that I’d never felt before. “The Lord didn’t speak to me in an audible voice,” she said. “But I got the message that I was going to be fine, I was healed.
“From that point until this I have been at peace with everything,” Arledge added. “After God ‘hit’ me that day, he brought peace like none I’ve ever had before—and that was it.”
Arledge’s cancer was Stage 2 when she got the diagnosis. She received an ultrasound after the mammogram. The tumor measured six centimeters. A needle biopsy was done on the tumor and one of her lymph nodes. “It was all in one day, I didn’t have time to think,” she said. “Then I got to the hospital parking lot and I lost it. I told mother she was going to have to call people because I just couldn’t.”
Arledge’s mother called her father’s sister who serves as a “navigator” at a Dothan hospital for cancer patients. “My aunt is a breast cancer survivor who was a real estate agent in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. When my daddy’s daddy got sick, she returned to Dothan where she has been working as a navigator, helping cancer patients.
Arledge’s aunt, Joyce Pybus, told the women not to worry. “She said she would be right there with us the whole way,” Arledge said.
The surgeon Pybus recommended for her niece thought that chemotherapy and radiation should be a first step rather than a mastectomy. “He said he could do a mastectomy right then but wanted to opt to try and shrink the tumor,” Arledge said. “I said the less invasive we can be to get the same result, let’s do that. Let’s get this tumor shrunk and we’ll go from there.”
“We went in to begin the chemo treatments two days later,’ Arledge said, adding that she was accompanied by her mother and sister. “Let me just say that I have had the best support group that anybody could ever have. Not just my mom and my sister but my work family and my church family, it’s been amazing.”
The 16 chemotherapy treatments included four very strong four-hour chemo treatments every two weeks at the beginning. “Can’t remember the names of those treatments but one of them they called the Red Devil,” she said. “I planned to not work on Thursday or Friday during that time. God has blessed me in this whole experience because I could have been sick after these treatments.”
During the chemo treatments she saw a familiar face on the nursing staff. “That was a comfort,” Arledge said. “God continues to have his hand on this.”
The chemotherapy treatments lasted from Aug. 28, 2019 until Jan. 17 of this year and did what the doctor hoped they would. The tumor shrank and Arledge did not need a mastectomy.
Surgery to remove the tumor—which had shrunk from six centimeters to two centimeters—and one sentinel lymph note was set for Feb. 4. The doctor’s report was positive, Arledge said. “The margins were clear and he only had to take one lymph node and it didn’t have any cancer in it,” she said. “So that part was behind me.”
Arledge had started radiation treatments when the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated safety precautions to include no patient visits accompanied by family members. “I had two days of radiation before the pandemic blew up,” she said. “Mother and Michelle had been able to go with me to treatment prior to that but that ended.”
In January, the day before Arledge had her last chemo treatment, she learned that a coworker had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “I thought maybe this is another reason I’m on this journey,” she said about her opportunity to provide comfort and guidance to another person. “This is all God. There is no other explanation. It’s Him.”
Arledge opted to shave her head when the chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out. She found a wig that resembled her normal hair style. “But girl, I just couldn’t wear a wig,” she said, shaking her head and smiling. “I just put a hat on and I loved it. I bought beanies to wear at night.”
Meanwhile, Arledge finished radiation in May, her normally straight hair grew back curly and the mammogram she had in September tested cancer free. “The cancer that I have was fueled by hormones. I was Hormone Receptor Positive so I already knew up front that once I completed everything, I will be on some form of hormone blocker for 10 years.
“I’ve told a lot of people in all of this experience that I do not see how a person that does not have a relationship with the Lord can get through this because that would have been impossible for me,” Arledge said. ‘I could not have made it through not knowing that He was there with me.
“Inside me I struggle with fear but God always brought me back to the Bible verse that says, ‘I have not given you a spirit of fear but one of power, love and a sound mind. So I had to hold on to that because without knowing that He was there, I would have been very fearful.”
Arledge had not had a mammogram before discovering the dimple on her breast. “That is not good because I am 49 years old,” she said. “I am now an encourager of mammograms and self checks.
“I would encourage everybody, young or old, do breast self-checks,” she said. “Have a mammogram every year. That way you can catch it early if there is something wrong.
“I have thought, ‘Lord, I don’t know why I’m on this journey,’” Arledge said adding that she continues to seek opportunities to share God’s hand on her journey. “I saw God at work from the beginning. I saw God all the way through.”