Photography by Russ Houston, Keri Chislom, & Alicia Vickers
Article by Joe Lee
Molly May, the former Miss MSU and a top ten finisher in the 2017 Miss Mississippi pageant, vividly remembers her reaction at eight years of age when she learned that her mother, Debra, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She took me for a walk,” said Molly, a Chickasaw County native who will graduate from MSU in December with a degree in Communication. “I instantaneously burst into tears and ran down the street to the swing set at our local park. In my eight-year-old mind, I thought if I could swing high enough, then the reality would be different when I got down, almost like I could swing away from it.”
Debra May, director of Health Information at Houston’s Trace Regional Hospital and in remission since 2009, carried a mass in her left breast for a decade. The mammograms tested negative each year, but once the mass began to grow and change Debra went to another physician. An ultrasound was ordered, and the mass – diagnosed as highly suspicious for malignancy – was removed. The doctor told Debra he’d gotten all of it, but she wasn’t so sure.
“Being a single mom and feeling like my diagnosis had been missed, all I could think of was that I had to live to raise my child,” Debra said. “I called the pathologist who actually looked at the slides from my mass. He said that it was not all gone, and if it was his wife she would have a mastectomy. This gave me courage to make an appointment at MD Anderson Cancer Center (in Houston, Texas), and indeed they recommended a mastectomy, lymph node removal and aggressive chemotherapy.”
However, Debra subsequently tested positive for the BRCA gene, which put her at increased risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Another mastectomy and a total hysterectomy followed. Along the way, she learned of two aunts who died of breast cancer, one of them in her early 40s.
“I was determined to live long enough to raise my child,” Debra said. “Telling Molly was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. She immediately wanted to know if I was going to die and what was going to happen to her. I had prayed for God to give me the years until she was 18 and I knew in my heart he had answered that prayer. So I told Molly I was not going die anytime soon … and she was not to worry.”
Debra began teaching her daughter things that eight-year-olds don’t usually learn, like checking car oil and tire pressure, doing the laundry, balancing a checkbook, and how cancer treatments worked.
“I grew up very quickly,” Molly said. “But my mom did a wonderful job at maintaining my childhood. She would drive me to Memphis for singing lessons, sometimes having to pull over the car to throw up from nausea from the chemotherapy. She would make sure I stayed in dance lessons, pageants and church youth group activities.
“She would come to my school and eat lunch with me on the days I went to school crying, because I thought she may die during the day before I got home.”
Down deep, Molly knew she would face breast cancer one day after watching her mother fight against it. Sure enough, she tested positive for the BRCA gene in December 2013. A freshman by then at Itawamba Community College (ICC) in Fulton, she underwent a series of tests the following month and was told she carried a radial scar, a mass found in her left breast with a 50 percent chance of becoming cancerous.
“I’d already decided against (chemotherapy) treatment, no matter how graceful my mother handled it. I just didn’t want to go through it,” Molly said. “The radial scar is diagnosed in only six of every 15,000 people tested. The room got quiet for a moment (when I was told). Then I broke the silence and said, ‘Okay. When do we need to schedule my surgeries?’”
After researching everything she could about what was ahead, Molly – at age 19 – was scheduled for a nipple-sparing prophylactic double mastectomy in June 2014 at Merit Health Woman’s Hospital of Flowood. She remains the youngest person in the state of Mississippi to have the surgery. There were complications afterward – two weeks later she was rushed into emergency surgery after her left breast hemorrhaged, and she underwent reconstructive surgery late that year. But she refused to give up and has been cancer-free for three years.
“At the time, I was the head drum major of the ICC marching band, and being able to conduct that following marching season was my sole motivation in physical therapy,” Molly said. “I’m proud to say I conducted every game. I leaned on my family and friends, but my mom, of course, could give me insight that only she could, even down to the simple things like bathing me and brushing my hair because I physically couldn’t do it.
“But I also leaned heavily on my good friend Keri Chisolm. She cooked every single lunch and dinner, brought them to me, and would feed them to me in the early days. She would sit at the kitchen table and do puzzles with me and watched every single 80s movie offered on Netflix with me. She would scold me when I stubbornly wouldn’t take my pain medication and force me to do my daily breathing exercises. I wouldn’t have made it through without her.”
Molly also said her faith had a significant role in getting her past the many surgical procedures and adjustments. By the time she transferred to MSU for the fall semester in 2015, she knew she wanted to be involved in campus life as much as possible. She rushed Zeta Tau Alpha sorority – whose philanthropic efforts support breast cancer education and awareness – and joined the Transfer Student Association, became vice-president of MSU’s Relay for Life chapter, and competed in the Miss Maroon and White Beauty Review.
“I won Miss Maroon and White 2016 and decided to compete for Miss MSU 2017,” Molly said. “With a lot of help from the Lord – He got me to stop avoiding mirrors – I very thankfully won and was the first person in (school) history to wear two crowns at the same time. I learned more about myself and about being a titleholder in my year as Miss MSU than I did in any of my years previously competing. Yes, I want to be Miss Mississippi and ultimately Miss America, but being Miss MSU is honestly just as good.”
Molly is working full-time in the Jackson area this fall while taking her final class online. She looks forward to a job in public relations (or a paralegal position with a law firm) and will continue to put her MSU platform to good use, speaking at every available opportunity about breast cancer awareness.
“I tell students about the importance of not just their health, but of setting goals and still pushing to reach them even when life and God throw curveballs at you,” Molly said. “A double mastectomy could have wrecked my self-esteem (enough) to never compete, but there was no way I wanted that to happen.”
“My number one point is to simply talk to your family about their history. Don’t be blindsided by something you never knew you could possibly inherit. Breast cancer is not age- or gender-specific. One in eight women will experience breast cancer in their lifetime, but so will one in 1,000 men.”
After Molly visited Batson Children’s Hospital (at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson) and saw so many children without hair, she and Debra launched a Bald is Beautiful campaign to donate hats and scarves to patients being treated with chemotherapy.
“Mom said that when she lost her hair, it was hard to find scarves or hats made of soft, breathable fabrics,” Molly said. “I’m so happy to say I’ve donated 200-plus hats and scarves to clinics and Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) hospitals in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Our goal is to mail hats and scarves to a CMN hospital in every state. Fighting for your life is a 24/7 job, and if the only way I can help is by providing them small comfort within a hat or wrap, I won’t ever stop.”
“I am a proud mom. Molly is one of the strongest people I know,” Debra May said. “After her mastectomy, she wanted to do more to help bring awareness to breast cancer. During rush, she was able to talk to about 700 young women about the importance of knowing your family history. She has had many opportunities to speak about our story and emphasizes that breast cancer is not just an old-lady disease.”
“Molly tells people that she did not pick her pageant platform. It chose her, and not just for pageants but lifetime advocacy.”