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The fight for her life

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Lebanon woman's face-off with cancer has been a blessing in disguise

By The Staff

A cavity - her very first cavity in fact - quite possibly saved Lori Jo Milby's life.

And while some tooth decay is what eventually led to her being diagnosed with cancer, it has been Lori Jo's brush with death that has given her a new appreciation for life, especially all of the little things that make it, as she would say, awesome.

"You don't ever thank God for cavities, but thank God," Lori Jo said. "If I had never found that cavity in my tooth I may not have been here in a few years."

And today, after one of the scariest and most difficult experiences of her life, Lori Jo couldn't be more alive. Her wide smile and bright eyes speak for themselves. She exudes happiness - happiness of simply being alive.

But, a few months ago, she was wondering if her life might end too soon.

Before that fateful day at the dentist's office, Lori Jo was the picture of good health. She took care of herself by eating well and being physically active. Her two children, Preston, 4, and Addison, 2, kept her on her toes. And her husband of almost six years, Adam, is a local fitness fanatic. So, being healthy and physically fit is an expectation in their household. Her job as a speech language pathologist with the school system and with her own private speech pathology business also kept her very busy.

Life, as she knew it, was good.

The day she learned of her cavity was just a blip on the radar screen. Little did she know, that cavity would be the start of a life-altering experience.

Cavity leads to cancer diagnosis...   During a routine visit to her dentist last year, Lori Jo found out that she had her very first cavity in her back right tooth. The dentist removed the cavity and put a filling in Lori Jo's tooth but a few days later she was still experiencing a great deal of pain. The tooth had become infected and eventually the infection spread to a lymph node in her neck. The lymph node stayed enlarged for about two months, and Lori Jo went to the doctor. She was given two separate rounds of antibiotics but the lymph node continued to stay enlarged. It was her third visit to the doctor when Dr. Salem George decided to schedule a biopsy of the lymph node.

But, Lori Jo wasn't worried. And the doctors didn't seem to be worried either.

"I'm thinking it's nothing because that is what they are telling me," she said. "'You're a healthy young lady, very active... two kids... two jobs...' they are telling me it's nothing."

The day Lori Jo went to Campbellsville to see Dr. David Bentley for her biopsy results, she still wasn't worried the least bit. She and her husband were actually more focused on the ice cream they were going to have to celebrate after they got the results.

"I thought it was fine," Lori Jo said. "I never worried about it at all."

She never, ever expected to hear the words that came out of Dr. Bentley's mouth.

"It's cancer," he told Lori Jo and her husband.

After hearing those words, Lori Jo said she sort of went blank. She sat there speechless. Her first thought was her two children.

"My kids... Oh my God, I'm going to die," she remembers thinking.

There would be no celebratory ice cream that day. Instead, they went straight to her parents' house to pick up their children. And while her children were Lori Jo's first thought after receiving her cancer diagnosis, she found herself needing her own parents to comfort her. 

"I wanted my daddy," Lori Jo said, tears welling up in her eyes as she reminisces back to that moment. "Daddy just held on to me and cried with me."

Her father, Joe Drye, was extremely positive from the get-go, Lori Jo said.

"We're going to get through this," she remembers him saying. "You're not going to die. You're going to live because God is not done with you."

The fight begins...   Lori Jo received her diagnosis Thursday, Nov. 5, and that next Tuesday, Nov. 10, she was under the knife, getting the infected lymph node removed. Doctors had to find out where, exactly, the cancer was coming from, and testing the lymph node would give them that answer.

"At that point I'm scared to death because I don't know where it's coming from," Lori Jo said.

It took 10 days for the test results to come back, and according to Lori Jo, those 10 days were absolute hell.

"You have no clue. You're thinking the worst," she said.

When she went back for the results, Dr. Bentley told her it was thyroid cancer, which had a 97 percent cure rate.

"If you're going to get cancer this is the best cancer to have," she remembers Dr. Bentley telling her.

A second surgery was scheduled to remove her thyroid and to make sure the cancer hadn't spread anywhere else. Lori Jo underwent several scans because doctors had a difficult time finding where the actual tumor was located. It ended up being a seven-millimeter by seven-millimeter spot, the size of the tip of her pinky finger, on the right side of her thyroid.

A second surgery was scheduled to remove Lori Jo's entire thyroid, along with 57 lymph nodes in her neck. The weekend before the surgery, Lori Jo and a good friend, Amanda Knopp, went Christmas shopping because she hadn't bought the first gift. She bought everything that day and her sister, Erin, wrapped all of the gifts. With that accomplished, she was ready for the surgery. She wanted to get the cancer out of her body and get on with her life. But, she admits, she was very nervous about the surgery.

"My biggest concern was my kids," Lori Jo said. "I didn't want my kids to grow up without their momma."

She couldn't help but wonder if her children would remember her if she did die. She and her husband even discussed that possibility.

"Don't let them forget who their mommy is," she told her husband.

The last thing she said before going into surgery was, "Tell my kids momma loves them."

Lori Jo fights back...   On Dec. 3, Dr. Bentley removed Lori Jo's thyroid along with 57 lymph nodes, two of which came back with microscopic cancer cells.

It took six weeks for her to recover from the surgery, but her fight was not over. She would then have to be on a very low iodine diet of basically raw fruits and vegetables before beginning her radiation pill treatment. Thankfully, after begging her doctor, she was able to enjoy the Christmas holiday and all of the food before going on the diet.

"I ate everything I could eat. I knew what was coming," she said, laughing.

The Sunday after Christmas she began the low iodine diet, which she had to do for a little more than a week. Then came the radiation pill. She can remember sitting in a hospital room in Louisville when medical professionals, dressed in protective suits, came in with a locked case. Inside the case was a little blue pill that she would swallow, but they couldn't even touch without protective gloves on. To say it was a strange experience would be an understatement.

"Within an hour, you're radioactive," she said. "By the time I got to Bardstown, I could feel it going through my veins. I felt like a light bulb."

After ingesting the radiation pill, Lori Jo had to stay isolated from everyone for four days. However, she had to be isolated from her children for 14 days. Her children stayed with their grandparents, and her husband stayed in the opposite part of the house. Lori Jo was confined in her bedroom. Her husband would bring her food to the door and then call her on the phone to let her know that the coast was clear to open the door. She watched lots of movies to pass the time, but she missed her family terribly. When she was finally reunited with her children, they were stuck to her like glue.

"They were so hooked to me and would not let me get out of their sight," Lori Jo said.

But, even after the radiation pill therapy, Lori Jo had more therapy in store for her. She underwent approximately 28 sessions of radiation to her neck. Five days a week she had to travel to Taylor Regional Hospital to receive the radiation treatment. The treatment itself only lasted 15 to 20 minutes, and she used that time to talk with God.

"That was my time to sit and pray and talk with God," Lori Jo said. "He made that our time to be together."

The treatment itself didn't hurt, that is, until it basically burned her esophagus and created painful blisters in her throat. In fact, it became so painful that she couldn't eat. For two weeks, she lived off of milk shakes.

"If I had to sneeze - that was the worse pain of all," she said.

During that time, Lori Jo lost more than 20 pounds, and there was about a week and a half that she couldn't even get out of bed. But, no matter how painful it was, she kept reminding herself that she was getting closer to ridding herself of the evil disease.

"Every day you're one more day closer to getting this behind you," Lori Jo said.

Her last treatment was on her 31st birthday, April 20. She was so sick she didn't want to celebrate then. But she told her husband that when she felt better she wanted to have a huge party and an even bigger birthday cake.

"I wanted to have the biggest damn birthday cake I could find," Lori Jo said, laughing.

And she got her wish. Recently, Lori Jo's family and friends surprised her with a birthday party at Chasers in Lebanon, which included a two-tiered birthday cake.

The fight continues...   Celebrating life is what Lori Jo is concentrating on every day, and that includes the little things that people so often take for granted.

"People just do not realize how good it is to be normal," she said. "Just to get up and go to work everyday is the greatest feeling. To give your kids a bath, I enjoy every second of that now."

Her experience has been life changing, not only for her, but for everyone around her.

Lori Jo's good friend, Amanda Knopp, who not only took her Christmas shopping but also helped organize a group of people to bring meals while she recovered from her surgeries, has been inspired by Lori Jo and her positive attitude.

"I have never been more amazed or inspired by any one person in my life," Knopp said. "Lori never asked 'why me' or felt sorry for herself. Instead, she stayed focused, positive and very strong in her faith and love for her family. I think she showed her true character throughout all of this. Over the last several months, life has handed her one curveball after another and instead of stepping out of the batters box and giving up, she held her head up, adjusted her stance and knocked cancer out of her life!"

According to Lori Jo's husband, Adam, staying positive was his main focus after she was diagnosed with cancer.

"We never had a negative word around our house about it," he said. "That's how we got through this."

Now, every day is a good day in the Milby household.

"We live every day happy," Adam said. "I never have a bad day anymore."

For Lori Jo, simply waking up every morning is a blessing.

"Life is awesome. It is so awesome," she said. "Each day when I wake up, I'm the happiest person. Before, when that alarm would go off, I would want to hit that snooze button three or four times. Now, I get up before the alarm. I'm just so happy and high on life."

But, Lori Jo admits, it's still hard for her to accept that she had cancer. But, she has a daily reminder when she takes medicine to keep her thyroid regulated, which she will have to take the rest of her life. She will also have to get regular scans to make sure the cancer hasn't returned. In fact, this Friday, June 11, she will have another scan. And, she's scared.

"It will be that way the rest of my life," Lori Jo said. "I'm always going to have that fear that there is a chance it could come back."

But, that fear will be no match for the newly found joy she has for life. In fact, she views her entire experience with cancer as a blessing.

"God knew I could handle it," she said. "And it was worth it. It was so worth it."