“That’s what scares me the most, a headache,” she said.
It was, in fact, two cancerous brain lesions rather than a common headache that caused Hill to pass out while at work at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit one day in July 1991. All she remembers is the excruciating pain in her head before things suddenly went black.
“I had a really bad headache,” said Hill, a 20-year TDCJ veteran who spent 14 at the Walls Unit before moving six years ago to the nearby Byrd Unit where she works third shift. “It felt like somebody was hitting me with a hammer.”
Doctors told Hill that the lesions no doubt stemmed from the surgery she had undergone four years earlier to have a cancerous breast removed. One of the lesions lay on the front of her brain, the other on the back. While neither was bigger than a pinhead, their mere presence didn’t bode well for Hill, then the 32-year-old single mother of a 12-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.
“My cancer doctor told me that there was a chance that I wouldn’t live long because the cancer had recurred within five years,” Hill said. “The only reaction I had was, ‘Lord, let me live to see my kids get older.’ All I talked to God about was my kids.”
Determined to see her kids grow up, Hill underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments at hospitals in Houston and Huntsville. The chemotherapy, which she had painfully endured following her breast surgery, again left her dreadfully ill.
“That’s some hard stuff,” she said of the chemotherapy that inadvertently kills healthy cells while attacking those that are abnormal. “To this day, I still have that metallic taste in my mouth from it. I’m always having to chew on some gum or a peppermint because of that taste.”
The radiation Hill received five days a week over five weeks pinpointed the two lesions on her brain, with a penciled-on X marking the precise location of each. The rear lesion soon faded, but the frontal lesion required stronger bursts of cobalt radiation before it, too, disappeared. Gone, too, was Hill’s hair, never to return.
“The radiation didn’t bother me, it just took all my hair,” said Hill. “The radiation destroyed my hair pores.”
Expenses associated with her brain cancer treatments proved to be far more than her short-term disability insurance could cover, so Hill felt compelled to quit her job as a correctional officer and withdraw all she had in her retirement account in order to support herself and her children. And even though she soon returned to TDCJ, she doesn’t yet have enough money in her account to retire comfortably. Still, she doesn’t feel cheated.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” she said about her second battle with cancer. “I don’t think I ever cried. I didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for me because that would have made me feel sorry for myself.”
Hill did pray privately, though.
“I don’t go to church all the time, but I do pray, and God knows my heart,” she said. “I give him all the credit. It wasn’t anybody but him and me wanting to make it. He’s Number One and I’m Number Two.”
First diagnosed with breast cancer in May 1987, Hill lost her father, oldest sister, and a younger brother to cancer. But she lived to see her children grow and become successful.
“I was determined to make it, and I’m still determined” she said. “I’m a fighter and I try hard. I’m here, so I have to be. And if they ever tell me that the cancer is back, I’m going to fight it until they say that’s it. Then I’m still going to fight it. I sure am.”