Sticky notes mean a lot to Julie Chapman. Those colorful little pieces of paper, stuck to the walls all around her home are what helped her get through two bouts of cancer.
“I had friends sending me Bible verses and stuff, so I took sticky notes and put them all over the house, verses that were special to me, verses that were encouraging,” said Chapman, 56, who has survived colon cancer twice now. “I had it in the kitchen, living room. I kind of tried to surround myself with encouraging verses.”
Those sticky notes are in the bathroom at her home now — she calls it her war room — so every time she’s there, she can look at them and be encouraged all over again. That’s the only way, she said, to get through cancer.
She was first diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in June 2015 after a routine colonoscopy. As a teacher at Chattahoochee Elementary in Forsyth County, it was the beginning of a summer unlike any she had before.
Chapman went through 12 rounds of chemotherapy and 28 days of radiation treatment. She had two surgeries to remove the tumors.
“It ended up being stage 3 when they did the surgery, because it was in my lymph nodes,” Chapman said. “But it was only one lymph node, which is a big deal when you're a cancer (patient).”
She put on a happy face and tried to go back to teaching in October while she was going through radiation. But after being back for just a couple of days, she got strep throat because her immune system was so weak. So, she waited it out.
By May of 2016, she was cancer free.
Her family ended up moving to South Hall — just outside of Braselton, but technically in Buford — and she got a job working at Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry, a place filled with people she’s since called part of her family, in August 2016.
“I had an 85% chance of it never coming back, then in December of 2017, I was teaching at Chestnut Mountain and found out it was back,” Chapman said. “It came back and it spread to my lungs.”
She had 11 more rounds of chemotherapy, two more surgeries and was cancer free for a second time in January 2018.
For Chapman, it sounds so routine when she talks about cancer. She almost makes it sound easy. She even went as far as to say that in a weird way, she didn’t think her cancer was a big deal.
“I've just been very blessed,” Chapman said. “God's just never left my side. And it's a hard road, but I've told people I'm almost glad I've gone through it, because it makes you realize how precious life is.”
She said without her faith and the students, teachers and administrators at Chestnut Mountain, she wouldn’t have been able to do it.
“When I went back to school, they had a big banner for me,” Chapman said. “And everybody was wearing blue for colon cancer.”
She wasn’t able to go back to teaching full time, but there remains a place for Chapman at Chestnut Mountain. In October of 2018, she went back to teach part time as a special education paraprofessional. And for this upcoming school year, she’ll be a part-time special education teacher.
Though she’s made it through, and she’s back teaching, she’s still feeling the effects of beating the disease twice.
“Chemo brain is real,” Chapman said. “I have difficulty with word retrieval. And I mean it's not terrible, and I can blame it on old age, too, because I'm getting older. But I still have neuropathy in my feet. The bottoms of my feet are pretty numb.”
Treatment itself wasn’t any better. She said there’s a “definite pattern” to chemotherapy. The more it built in her system, the worse it got. After getting chemotherapy on a Wednesday, she found out Saturdays were her bad days
“The best way I know to describe it is like you're run over by a Mack truck,” Chapman said.
There were about three or four days of nausea and exhaustion where she could barely walk from her bedroom to the living room. But after those few days, she started feeling better, until it was time for another round of chemotherapy.
That’s when she relied on her husband, Mitch, who she said was her rock.
“You're in the middle of chemo and you feel like crud, and he's just been on ready the whole time,” Chapman said.
She didn’t want her children to see exactly how bad things were and she kept a lot of the pain from her own mother, too. But her husband, he saw all of it.
“It was probably tougher emotionally than it was physically,” he said. “A big part of it was I had to be kind of steady. I couldn’t show any fear. She kind of fed off me and how I reacted to things, so I had to be kind of just steady to let her know that everything was going to be OK.”
He especially had to remain steady when he went with her during chemotherapy treatments.
He said it was a humbling experience, as he sat by his wife for hours while she was getting treatment.
Chapman started to call it the “chemo lounge.” She felt like she owned the place, especially after her second time around.
“You're trying to stay as normal as you can,” Chapman said. “I think that's what I missed. I just wanted to be normal.”
So when she was in the chemo lounge, she did what she would do anywhere else.
“I'd get there and walk around and talk and ask if I can pray for anyone in any way,” Chapman said. “And I always had someone with me. I had sweet friends who would come and we'd play cards, we'd eat, we'd laugh. You have to laugh. You have to find the joy, the humor in it.”
Some days, that was harder than others, though.
Those days were the days she reached out for help. As she tried to keep a calm demeanor, there were some days where she simply couldn’t do it. She’d reach out to friends and family through Facebook and text messages.
Chapman’s cousin got her in touch with Lisa Murray, who lives in Augusta. Although Chapman and Murray have only met once, they’ve become close friends.
“I had been diagnosed with colon cancer nine years ago, and came out on the other side,” Murray said. “So Julie and I became great friends and it was just the coolest.”
Murray encouraged Chapman whenever she needed it. She gave her advice through messages and conversations over the phone, which meant a lot coming from someone who had already been through what she was going through. Murray told her to sleep when she was tired. But when she wasn’t, she reminded Chapman to not let cancer rob her of her life.
“When you're going through chemo, sometimes you just have down days and you just need somebody to encourage you and say, ‘Tomorrow is going to be better,’” Murray said.
Apart from connecting with friends and family through text, Chapman would post online asking for prayer when she had appointments coming up or when she just wasn’t feeling well.
That worked well for her first diagnosis. But it was a little tougher the second time around.
When it came back the second time, it was Christmas break and her family had stopped in for her routine scans before heading out to do some Christmas shopping. The doctor came back to the room with the results and let her know the cancer was back.
“That hit me like a ton of bricks, because it was like, ‘What do you mean, it's back?’” Chapman said. “That one hit me the worst. I went home for about three days and I just looked at my husband and said, ‘I'm going to die. I'm going to die. This is it, I'm going to die.’”
A few days and many prayers later, Chapman came out on the other side of those thoughts.
“I just trusted God, that he was going to get me through it,” Chapman said. “If you get down in that pit and you stay there, there's nothing good that's going to come out of that. And that’s part of the peace I have now.”
The bits of Scripture around her home helped bring her to that peace. They were small moments throughout her day where she would stop, be reminded of her faith, and continue fighting.
"God taught me humility, and to let people help me,” Chapman said. “That was very hard for me, because I'm very independent. I like to take care of myself, but that was a lesson I learned.”
Her husband got so used to doing things, that he still is sometimes in that mindset. But Chapman’s independence kicks in now, and she’s ready to help where she can. Although life may look a little different, things are getting back to normal.
“It makes you appreciate normal,” Mitch Chapman said. “Just being able to go to the grocery store, just being able to do this or that. Just doing housework, things around the house. It makes you appreciate normal, because now we have a new normal based on what she’s been through.”
With all the help she’s received, she’s made it through and is aiming for a more normal life each day
She still looks at those sticky notes every day, just little scraps of ink, pulp and glue, and is reminded of how she’s gotten to where she is.
Cancer didn’t stop Chapman from living. It made her stronger.
“I'm not afraid of cancer anymore,” Chapman said. “I don't want it, but I'm not afraid … I'm grateful for it, because the peace I have now, it's like I've got peace that I didn't have before.”