Memories of her 11-year-old son, Noah, confiding nightmares about his mother dying following her cancer diagnosis still brings tears to the eyes of Melissa Philson, a 47-year-old Butler County Community College assistant professor.
“It is still probably the toughest part to think of,” she said.
While she can also still hear the “shrill scream from my son” when repeating the oncologist's finding, she also sees the blank stare on the face of her 13-year-old daughter Makenna, who Philson said would come to believe she had to “be the rock” and an early mother figure to “keep it together for her little brother.”
Philson would quickly tour PNC Park with Noah, and visit Cedar Point with Makenna – “all these things you put off,” she said, “and say you are going to do.”
Two years later, her disease — malignant invasive ductal carcinoma, estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, HER 2 negative — remains in remission after a May 2017 bilateral mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy over 12 weeks.
Philson is among BC3 volunteers serving on the college's first Project Pink week committee, whose Oct. 7 to 11 fundraising activities for breast cancer research culminate with a 2019 Dig Pink volleyball game on BC3's main campus in Butler Township, where the Pioneers will swap their blue and white uniforms for pink in an Oct. 11 Western Pennsylvania Collegiate Conference matchup.
Gift-basket raffles, donation buckets, 50-50 drawings, and sales of 2019 Dig Pink long- or short-sleeved shirts and pink ribbons on BC3's main campus will join similar activities at BC3 @ Armstrong in Ford City, BC3 @ Brockway in Brockway, BC3 @ Cranberry in Cranberry Township, BC3 @ Lawrence Crossing in New Castle and BC3 @ LindenPointe in Hermitage.
Philson, in March 2017, became the first member of her family and one of the quarter-million women and men in the United States who, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, who are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Because of her early detection and treatment, she was not among the 40,000 Americans, the foundation reports, that the disease claims annually.
Project Pink week at BC3 represents her opportunity to give back, said Philson, whose children today are 15 and 13.
She and her husband will mark their 19th wedding anniversary Oct. 14.
“I love what I do, and I love BC3,” said Philson, a college employee since 2003.
Upon learning of her diagnosis, Philson's students taped inspirational signs on her office door, which she would see after chemotherapy treatments while continuing to teach through the fall 2017 semester.
“I always thought, 'I am going to have to give back,'” Philson said. “The outpouring of support when I was going through this … it could still bring tears to my eyes.”
BC3's breast cancer awareness month activities had been organized by BC3's volleyball program and the Student Life office since 2010, the first year in which the college assisted the Side-Out Foundation, a Virginia charity that raises awareness and funds for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer through mainly volleyball-related events.
BC3 in 2018 raised $3,234, its highest total for the Side-Out Foundation. BC3 has contributed $15,989 to the nonprofit organization in the past nine years.
Philson, a psychology educator from Greenville, Mercer County, learned from her oncologist in October 2017 that nothing in her bloodwork “was elevated” and celebrated remission with trips to sporting events with her husband, J.R., and daughter and son.
She will also be celebrating during Pink Week which highlights the 2019 Dig Pink volleyball game at 6 p.m. Oct. 11.
Those attending the Oct. 11 game will be charged $3 if wearing a 2019 Dig Pink shirt, and $5 if not.
Those attending can also sample cookies topped with light pink icing and magenta icing ribbons.
Guests to BC3's Succop Theater for the Oct. 11 to 13 performances of “Mamma Mia!” by the Musical Theatre Guild of Butler can also place donations in a BC3 Project Pink week bucket in the theater lobby.
Breast cancer awareness month represents “a nice reminder of where I was two years ago,” Philson said.
“Even though these past six months have been hellacious,” she said she thought in October 2017, “I am going to get to that point where it is like, 'Look! One year went by already. Look! Two years went by already.'
“It is a celebration of 'Wow! Look! I have blinked and two years have gone by.'
“And we are here.”
William Foley is coordinator of news and media content at Butler County Community College.