Sylvia was nervous about talking on camera about her breast cancer diagnosis. She was worried that she wouldn’t look her best without her hair. “Should I put on a little lipstick?” she asked as we set up the video equipment.
I wondered why she had agreed to do the interview. Why invite strangers into your house to talk about something as private as breast cancer? But Sylvia was determined. “I want all the focus to be on the pilots,” she said before we began, “I want this to be helpful to them.”
As we talked, Sylvia took every opportunity to turn the conversation back to the volunteer pilots who made it possible for her to get to chemotherapy. It was in hopes of sending heartfelt thanks to the Angel Flight pilots that she volunteered for the interview.
When I first arrived at Sylvia’s farm, she came out to greet me before I even put the car in park. She was petite, and her eyes looked amazingly big and bright considering she’d lost her eyelashes to chemotherapy. She wore an aqua baseball cap with pink flamingoes over her bare head, and she offered me a glass of peach iced tea as she welcomed me inside.
Benton City is home to about 3,000 people, and the town is too small even for a Starbucks. When Sylvia started having chronic stomach pains, doctors in her area struggled to figure out what was wrong. Finally, she received her diagnosis at a hospital in Seattle: she had breast cancer that had manifested in her stomach. She wanted to begin treatment right away.
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The four- to five-hour drive to Seattle for chemotherapy treatments was difficult, but the same level of care simply wasn’t available closer to her farm. “I just didn’t feel like I was going to get the new and better care for me by staying here,” she said. “Finding this particular doctor in Seattle&mmdash;he has helped many people who have been given a very short time to live, and they’ve ended up with years.”
Sylvia said her current doctor is more willing to take risks and that, again and again, she’s felt like he’s the right choice for her. She talked about how much he cares for his patients. He tells Sylvia that though she’s moving a little slower than other patients through her therapy, she is a success story.
Sylvia was able to continue her Seattle treatments even after her husband passed away because of Angel Flights. She says that flying in a little Cessna is much more fun than driving anyway. “It’s just been a lifesaver, really,” she said. “I believe part of my getting well [has been] being able to continue the trips and go there.”
As Sylvia showed me around her farm, I got a sense of what it meant to her to stay in her tiny town east of the mountains. She shared about how she and her husband built their farm bit by bit from a severely neglected piece of land. “The place was all covered in garbage,” Sylvia said. “I cried when my husband told me we would have to live in the old farmhouse for the first few months.” The farmhouse didn’t have plumbing or electricity and was covered in layers of dingy carpeting.
But little by little, the land became a farm. Sylvia and her husband added a barn, outbuildings, a house, and 22 alpacas to their 22 acres. “We did most of the work ourselves,” she said proudly. Sylvia has no plans to leave the town she calls home.
Because of Angel Flight West, Sylvia can stay right where she is. Generous donations from Breast Cancer Site supporters help fund Angel Flight West so that children and adults with serious medical needs can reach their life-saving appointments. The volunteer pilots donate their time and fuel, and financial donations cover the cost of the staff who coordinate flights, transportation, and often hotel stays for the patients.
After our time together, we drove to a tiny airstrip, and I got to watch Sylvia lift off toward Seattle on a flight directly funded by the Breast Cancer Site.
“I have a lot of people praying for me, and I believe in miracles,” Sylvia said. “I have never ever felt like I’m just ready to sit down and not try, and I feel positive because I have so many people rooting for me.”
We’re rooting for you too, Sylvia.
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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.