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Overcoming the odds: Mom overcomes financial struggles, cancer

POSTED: December 26, 2013 12:44 a.m.

DeAnn Watson, a single mother of four, has overcome poverty and most recently, stage 5 tongue cancer. She had her tongue removed and had to learn how to speak again.

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DeAnn Watson shrugged and said she always just managed the best way she could.

The 42-year-old Gainesville woman’s “best” is a word with weight.

Indeed, no word that comes from Watson’s mouth is to be taken lightly.

When Watson was a young single mother of two, she relied on help from a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant to make ends meet.

But after she became pregnant with twins, she knew she needed to find a job that would support her growing family and give her children the life she wanted them to have.

Watson attended a six-week course at Lanier Technical College to learn to become an office assistant. Soon after completing it, she heard about a job opportunity at the Department of Family and Children Services. She applied and was quickly hired. She worked with the department for 12 years.

“I went from being a TANF recipient to having a job at DFACS,” Watson said. “It gave me a feeling that I could do what I wanted to do. I didn’t have to stay on TANF in order to support my children.”

Even with a full-time job, Watson and her children lived in government housing at Harrison Square Apartments in Gainesville for a number of years.

She kept her children busy with sports after school while she worked.

Her daughter, Tinisha Watson, 15, runs track. Her three sons, Detrick Watson, 24, Deshaun Watson, 18, and Tyreke Watson, 15, all play football. Deshaun, Gainesville High School quarterback, will attend Clemson University in South Carolina in the fall on a football scholarship.

“When we were living in the projects and they got out of school, if they had some sports to go to I didn’t worry about them being at home,” Watson said.

“They would be busy and couldn’t get into trouble.”

Watson said she always wanted to have a house of her own where her children “could go outside and play and not have to worry about anybody else.”

But homeownership seemed like an unattainable dream because she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford a bank loan.

Then one day at a Christmas party, Watson’s oldest son heard about Habitat for Humanity and brought an application home.

Watson’s application was accepted. In her excitement, she completed the organization’s “sweat equity” requirement before construction even began on her own home. She volunteered with Good News at Noon, a homeless shelter in Gainesville and helped with the construction of other Habitat for Humanity homes.

The family of five moved into its own home on Nov. 21, 2006.

For a while, everything was “fine.”

Then in 2011, Watson went to the emergency room for what she thought was strep throat.

“They checked me and said it’s not strep throat,” Watson said. “The doctor came back and said I might have cancer.”

Watson was diagnosed with stage 5 tongue cancer.

“I was at the last stage and never knew I had it,” Watson said.

In order to survive the disease, Watson’s tongue was removed. She was given radiation and chemotherapy treatments for six weeks in Atlanta.

While she recovered in the hospital, her children stayed with family members and supported each other as best they could.

Tinisha said it was a difficult time for the family. The hardest part was not being able to see her mom everyday while she recovered.

After her surgery and treatment, Watson was so weak she needed a walker to move around. The doctors told her she’d never be able to speak again and would need to use a feeding tube for the rest of her life.

It took nearly a year for Watson to recover her strength.

“I believed I would be OK,” she said. “I had the faith I would be able to recover.”

Today, Watson is cancer-free and able to speak recognizably though labored.

She laughed and said her children understand her until she says something they don’t want to hear.

Tinisha and Tyreke exchanged a look and smiled.

While the children might give their mother a hard time every now and then, Tinisha said she’s inspired by “how she loved us and how she kept going.”

Tyreke said his mother has shown him he can “never give up.”

“Life will be hard but if you keep hope and keep faith that things will get better, they will.” Tinisha added.

Watson didn’t have to say anything when she looked at her youngest children sitting next to her on the couch.

She just nodded and smiled.


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