In June 2014, Valerie Hoffman received the news that every person dreads: Cancer.
Almost exactly five years later, her sister, Judy Jones, would receive the same diagnosis.
First, Hoffman leaned on Jones. Then, Jones leaned on Hoffman. Together, they leaned on their faith. And, today, they’re celebrating seven years and two years cancer-free, respectively.
Like many other types of cancer, the risk of breast cancer increases with age, making age an uncontrollable risk factor. But the average age of a diagnosis in women with breast cancer is 62. Judy was 59 when she was diagnosed in 2019. Valerie was just 49 when she was diagnosed in 2014. It’s always to ask “why me?” when a doctor delivers the grim news of cancer. But Valerie and Judy didn’t court pity. Instead, they leaned on their faith. And each other.
Giving It To God
Judy Jones and Valerie Hoffman are in some ways very different people. Valerie followed their father, the Rev. Hubert Terry, into the education field, and is a math teacher at Oneida Elementary School. Judy went into the financial world, and currently works as a lender at First National Bank.
But among the many things shared by the sisters — who also have a brother, Richard Terry — is a strong faith in Jesus Christ. Judy and her husband, Carl, are members of First Baptist Church of Robbins, while Valerie and her husband, George, are members of New Haven Baptist Church in Oneida. And as they faced the biggest battle of their lives, they relied on that faith to carry them.
“I remember telling Judy that I just didn’t know how people face the cancer journey without God,” Valerie said. “I don’t think that I have ever felt His presence more in my life than during that time. I was never afraid, and I felt at peace throughout the journey.”
Everywhere she looked, Valerie found reminders that she wasn’t alone in the fight.
“I never realized how many people truly loved and cared about me until then,” she said. “I remember John Vernon Thompson Jr. sang a song at church that was called ‘Somebody’s Praying Me Through.’ It touched my heart because I could feel the prayers of my family, church family and friends.”
Like her sister, Judy Jones had no fear when she was diagnosed.
“I grieved for my family,” she said. “My husband and girls, my sister, my church family. Gosh, with that much love and support, you can face anything.”
Just before Judy was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, her family learned the song “Didn’t I Walk on the Water.” Among the lyrics: “As I kneel in the darkness in the middle of the night / I’m praying for assurance everything’s going to be alright / And Lord, I see another battle out in front of me / I’m afraid I won’t be able and I’ll go down in defeat. And He said, ‘Do you remember where I brought you from? Just take a look behind you at how far you’ve come / Oh and every time you ask me didn’t I deliver you / So why would you be thinking that I wouldn’t see you through…”
“Looking back, you see God’s hand in every step,” she said.
Leaning on Each Other
“Judy and I have always had a special sister bond, and this journey has brought our hearts even closer,” Valerie Hoffman said.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, all of Valerie’s children were grown and away — Ryan Hoffman lived in Virginia, Jennifer Conatser in Kentucky, and Carter Hoffman was in college, gone from home of the time. It was just her and her husband, George, at home. But there was also her older sister, Judy.
“Judy jumped right in to help George care for me after the surgery,” she said. “I really don’t know what I would have done without the two of them.”
Five years later, Valerie had an opportunity to repay the sisterly love when Judy was facing her own diagnosis.
“I had been with Val through her surgery and recovery so I had an idea what to expect, but she was so heart-broken when I got it,” Judy said. “She prayed so hard. I just can’t imagine going through this stuff without a close family.”
Having already faced the same battle her sister was facing, Valerie was able to provide information to Judy.
“Val was a wealth of knowledge for me,” Judy said. “I always knew she was praying for me and my husband and kids. She always said, ‘It’s not a sisterhood you want to be in, but…’”
Vigilance Pays Off
Judy Jones and Valerie Hoffman were sticklers about mammograms. Doctors recommend that women begin annual mammograms by the age of 45. Valerie’s doctors recommended she get a regular mammogram and ultrasound every six months.
As it turned out, Valerie’s willingness to abide by her doctor’s recommendations paid off. Her cancer was detected very early.
“I had had a few needle biopsies in the past that were benign,” she said. “I was never able to feel the tumor, even after they showed me where it was.”
Breast cancer runs in the sisters’ family. Their maternal grandmother had breast cancer, along with an aunt on both their father’s side and mother’s side, and a cousin.
Over a period of seven months in 2009, cancer hit their father’s side of the family particularly hard. Rev. Terry had a sister die of brain cancer, a brother die of stomach cancer, and he himself died in July 2009 of mantle cell lymphoma.
Although there was a history of breast cancer in the family, Valerie Hoffman had genetic screening done, and it was negative for cancer markers.
Judy’s path to cancer diagnosis was a little different. She was involved in a horrific accident on Interstate 75. A suspect who was running from police slammed into her vehicle, knocking it into the concrete median and causing it to careen across the lanes of traffic and flip over a guardrail.
“I walked away by God’s grace with only bruising, primarily where the seatbelts were,” Judy said.
That was in March 2019. She later went in for an exam, thinking she had a leftover hematoma in her breast from the accident. But it turned out to be a tumor.
“I was never good at self-exams, which is why God allowed me to be in the accident to find it in time,” she said.
Choosing To Fight
Both Valerie and Judy chose to be aggressive in their battle against breast cancer. Valerie’s oncologist gave her the option of a lumpectomy, which would have required radiation and chemotherapy. Instead, she chose a double mastectomy.
“I am so thankful that I did because they found pre-cancer in my left breast,” she said. “They said it would have only been a matter of time before I would have had cancer in my left breast. I have never regretted my decision.”
Likewise, Judy said she has never regretted her decision to undergo a bilateral mastectomy five years later.
Because the cancer was discovered in both women before it spread to the lymph nodes, chemo and radiation were not needed.
“We were both blessed not to need chemo or radiation, although Val went through five years of chemocare meds and I was supposed to also,” Judy said.
A Message To Others
Both Judy Jones and Valerie Hoffman are a walking testament to being vigilant. They followed their doctors’ recommendations, their cancers were detected early, and they’re now enjoying their health, which allows them to continue their jobs, their roles in their respective churches, and their grandkids.
“I think it is essential for women to get routine mammograms yearly … or more often if the doctor recommends, as was my case,” Valerie said.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology estimates that more than 43,000 women will die of breast cancer in the United States this year. It’s the second-leading cause of cancer death among women overall.
That’s why doctors recommend that women be vigilant about conducting self-exams at home and undergoing a mammography annually once they reach their mid 40s. When breast cancer is detected early, it’s highly treatable — as was the case with both Judy and Valerie. For women whose breast cancer is detected before it has spread, the five-year survival rate is better than 90%. Once it has metasticized, however, the survival rate drops to just 28%.
While all women should understand the importance of mammograms, Judy said women should also understand their strength and their odds.
“I think it’s important to know there are lots of folks that have survived breast cancer and done well,” she said. “It’s not an automatic death sentence. And we’re stronger than we know.”