Two weeks ago, Dr. Tonya Lyons attended a seminar on Breast Cancer Awareness at a nearby church in Southaven, Miss. Considering she is a longtime health professional, she sensed it would be just another informative session in which she would acquire some additional knowledge to share with others who are perhaps fighting the dreaded disease.
But what she and others discovered during the brief session was something Lyons admittedly will remember for the rest of her life.
A breast cancer patient stood up and spoke about how her husband, who isn’t experiencing any form of cancer, would routinely convince doctors to allow him to sign a release form and join his wife in the radiation machine whenever she went in for treatment.
Lyons, clinging to the edge of her seat, was in awe as the woman continued to share what apparently was an emotional story with the audience.
“That blessed me,” Lyons said. “But my situation was not like that. “You’re like, ‘What was so wrong with me that my situation didn’t turn out like that?’”
That the woman felt it was the appropriate setting to break her silence about a seemingly personal situation that left a majority of the attendees fighting back tears, Lyons sensed it was time that she break hers.
Sitting in a conference room Monday afternoon at her New Image Family Dentistry facility in Southeast Memphis on what would have been her thirteenth wedding anniversary, Lyons told MemphiSport Magazine during its salute of Breast Cancer Awareness how her husband, former pastor Bill Anderson, abandoned their marriage within months of their tenth anniversary. Lyons, who has two children with Anderson, found it difficult to come to grips with what had transpired, in part because doctors had declared her cancer free at the time.
“He said, ‘We’re going to beat it,’” said Lyons, when asked what was her husband’s initial reaction after learning she had been stricken by breast cancer. “And he said we’ve got to tell the church. And then he preached on, ‘This Battle Is Not Yours, It’s The Lord’s.’”
Lyons said she even recalls days after she had been diagnosed how she and her husband were locked “arm in arm” as they paced back and forth across the pulpit, as if to say that they would persevere during her battle with the disease. Five months later, however, Lyons’ husband chose to go his separate way, leaving his wife to care after their two children who, at the time, were two and six years old.
Anderson eventually resigned as pastor of the East Memphis church he and his wife had established along with 40 individuals in June 2002.
“I thought I knew what I had,” Lyons said as she prepares to participate in the Susan G. Komen 5K Race For The Cure at Saddle Creek Saturday at 8 a.m. “He had been a good husband for almost 10 years. So getting sick was the last thing I thought would have caused that. Not only did I feel deceived, but the church felt deceived.”
Lyons, in fact, said that while speaking publicly for the first time about her broken marriage — the divorce is pending and is expected to be final by month’s end — is not an attempt to bring about criticism to her estranged husband, she stressed she is only revealing what she describes as the “untold story” surrounding married women who become breast cancer victims.
“I actually did some (online) studies,” Lyons explains.
What she discovered, she said, was that seven out of 10 married women who become diagnosed with breast cancer ultimately witness their marriage end in divorce.
“I guess spiritually, you look at it like, ‘Wow!’ Especially with him being a pastor. “I had, really, almost two trials, two tragedies going on at the same time. In the midst of my sickness, my spouse couldn’t deal with me being sick. In his mind, he had written me off.”
Lyons, who is a native of Cairo, Ill. and has been practicing dentistry in Memphis for the past 18 years since graduating from Jackson State University, learned she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2009 when she decided she needed to lose weight. While in the shower one morning, she discovered a lump on her breast, which prompted her to schedule a visit with her physician.
Oddly, she had an annual exam performed by her primary specialist 17 days prior to meeting with a physician. But according to her, her doctor “missed the lump.” Fortunately for Lyons, she managed to reduce her weight by 35 pounds over three months through dieting and regular exercise. That’s because doctors informed her had she not lost weight, it would have been difficult to detect the lump, which could have potentially increased the risk of her entering Stage 4 of breast cancer.
In other words, the cancer could have spread throughout other areas of her body, most notably the bones, brains, lungs, and liver.
After doctors located the lump, Lyons was at Stage 2, a slightly more advanced form of breast cancer, although the cancer customarily had not spread to a distant part of the body. Lyons sensed her diagnosis had stemmed from having four miscarriages between 1999 and 2006 or from giving birth during what she deems a late stage in her life.
She gave birth to her first child when she was 35, her second when she was 40.
“They were like, ‘Come back in two weeks for your biopsy,’” Lyons said. “The radiologist knew what he was looking at when he asked me did anyone drive with me to have the mammogram. Being a health professional, I knew that he knew it was cancer. It was a tremendous amount of fear. When you hear the word cancer, you automatically think that you’re going to die. I called one of my distant cousins in Jackson (Miss.), who is an 11-year (breast cancer) survivor, and she told me to relax, breath, and that it’s not a death sentence.”
Still, Lyons’ husband, whose mother died of colon cancer in January 2000, wasn’t convinced that his wife would survive what undoubtedly was the biggest crisis during their marriage. The couple, in fact, attempted to salvage their union, traveling as far as to Los Angeles for counseling.
In reality, the flight to L. A. was a huge time-waster, of sorts.
“He started crying when the doctors said I was cancer free,” Lyons said. “He told the (marriage) counselor he stayed those months because he was waiting for me to die.”
Anderson, one of Memphis’ most successful young pastors at the time, abandoned his family roughly one month after his wife had taken her final round of chemotherapy. Prior to his marriage to Lyons, he had been married three previous times.
Consequently, Lyons’ mother, Martha Sanders, became her primary care-giver. And, with the support of fellow church members, other family members, and close acquaintances, she ultimately weathered the storm of arguably the most tumultuous moments of her life.
Surely, the healing process seemed downright unbearable at times, Lyons admits. But just like her four-month battle with breast cancer, she overcame it.
Never mind that she and her husband would have celebrated 13 years of marriage on Monday.
“I’m thinking more so about how God is,” Lyons said as she sat back in her chair, wiping away tears. “When God said He wanted me to be a spokesperson for something, I thought it was going to be for miscarriages. Life is good for me now even after divorce, even after cancer. I’m just loving life.”
Loving life, as she quickly pointed out, certainly isn’t a time-waster.
Not by a long shot.