By Ethan Nahté
Phyllis Caldwell’s name is one that’s familiar to much of the community. She’s the office manager at Hampton Aviation going on 16-plus years, treasurer for the Polk County Fair and Rodeo Association, and was one of The Pulse’s Women in Business honorees in 2022.
In addition, she is secretary for the Mena Elks Lodge No. 781 and the past exalted ruler (E.R.) in 2015, 2016 and 2018. The E.R. is the president and executive officer of the lodge. Caldwell’s the only woman who has been E.R. for Mena. She is also the state’s Elk National Foundation chairperson and was running for Arkansas State Elks Second Vice President this past weekend. She won the election and will be installed at their spring convention in May 2024.
Despite her accomplishments with the Elks, she reveals her sharing spirit by taking time to comment on fellow Elks member Cindy Charpentier during the interview.
“Cindy won an award for our local lodge two years ago on Elks National Foundation. She got a perfect score on everything that could possibly be done for Elks National Foundation for one year. She is the only woman in the United States who has done it so far.”
Caldwell’s work with the Elks is purely for what the organization does for the community.
“We’re everywhere — youth, elderly, veterans. We support fire departments, police stations. We’re a patriotic group. We’re American. Red, white and blue doesn’t mean we all exactly believe the same thing and doesn’t mean we’re all the same, but we have a common goal to make our community better. That’s what I love about the Elks. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, we will help any way we can.”
The paying job and the volunteer work demands a lot of time and energy. Add a family of four kids as a single mother onto the pile and it’s even more of a demand physically, mentally and emotionally. When a person is also stricken with something such as breast cancer and still keeps working at her obligations, it falls into a special category for strength and persistence. Take a look at the aforementioned dates again and in the middle of possibly one of Caldwell’s busiest years, 2016, she received shocking news on top of a life-changing event.
“I was really lucky. That was really a bad year for me when I got diagnosed with cancer. I have four children and two were teenagers and still at home. Two months prior to getting diagnosed with cancer, I had a heart attack and had to have stints put in. I was in Walmart walking around one day and decided I better go to the hospital,” Caldwell said with a laugh as she looks back at what all she has battled and survived.
During her heart stints procedure, nothing additional had been noticed in her scans, possibly because an unsuspected lump was on the far side of her right breast. X-rays can detect breast cancer but are not the typical method for discovery.
“X-rays and mammograms are different types of scans. The breast cancer was discovered during my mammogram, here at the local hospital. It was just a small spot. We caught it really, really quick. I had a biopsy here locally. Once it was found to be malignant, they sent me over to Genesis Cancer [and Blood Institute] in Hot Springs to Dr. [Stephen “Fred] Divers.
When it was first determined she had cancer, Caldwell said, “I was scared to death. I had two kids at home.”
It was also a shock because breast cancer does not run in her family. “My father died from prostate cancer. I had an aunt that died from cervical cancer. As far I know, I was the first one with breast cancer. I didn’t know what to expect. My sister-in-law had breast cancer before. I talked to her and my brother about it some. She went through it many years ago. I didn’t have a clue of what I was getting into, but it was ‘cancer.’ I don’t care what kind of cancer it is. You hear the word and if it’s you it scares you to death. If anybody tells you it doesn’t, they’re lying. I would have told you at the time, ‘No, I’m fine.’
“All I could think of was all of the things that I hadn’t finished in my life. I didn’t have my kids raised. I hadn’t seen any grandkids yet.”
She discovered some self-therapy. “I started writing a journal. The first time I had ever journaled anything in my life. It was one of the things that kept me sane. If something did happen, at least I had written something that my kids knew what I felt and what I expected and what I’d hoped. That kind of diagnosis helps you think about your mortality.”
She had to decide on how to approach her family. “I said, ‘We’re not going to worry about this. We’re going to take care of it.’ That’s what I as a single mom was used to doing. We take care of it. We try not to worry about it. We do everything the best we can. I tried not to let them know I was worried because you don’t want them to be scared, too. My family has always been ‘You be strong, and you take care of things.’ Even if things go wrong, you still take care of it the best you can and keep on going. I tried not to stress them out. I don’t think I was successful all the time,” she said with another laugh.
Treatment travails and travels
Caldwell had not even suspected something was wrong. “I had infiltrating ductal carcinoma, so it was in the ducts. No lump, nothing.”
Her recent heart attack at that time and the stints added to the concern. “They had to get permission from the cardiologist to do stuff. Look, if I’m going to go, I’ll go with the heart attack rather than the lingering death of cancer. When my aunt died, it was long and drawn out and painful.”
“We did some more testing and surgery at CHI [St. Vincent]. We did a lumpectomy. Then I went for radiation treatments.”
A lumpectomy is a treatment option for early-stage breast cancer. It’s less invasive than mastectomy, which removes the entire breast. In a lumpectomy, the tumor and a small amount of surrounding tissue known as the margin is removed. The purpose is to remove the cancerous cells.
According to the MD Anderson website, landmark studies dating back to the ‘70s and ‘80s show that patients who have a lumpectomy and radiation therapy have the same low risk for recurrence as patients who have a full mastectomy.
“I’ve never been through anything like that before and it was miserable. I had to have 30 treatments. They give you two options: You can do them every other day for two months or you can double up and do it all in one month. I was driving back and forth to Hot Springs every weekday morning for radiation therapy, driving back to work for the afternoon, then still trying to keep up with Elks and kids. This started in November on the radiation treatments, and I finished up just a few days after Christmas.
“I was exhausted. I was burnt. I was sore. I had no energy or appetite. But I didn’t have to go through any chemo treatments. The people who do… my hat is off to them. I can’t even imagine the extra wear and tear on your body that takes.
“The treatment facility at CHI, they have a cancer center for treatment with radiation. They have a whole department there just for that. They were great. They were very efficient. They have your appointment set up and you check in. They come and get you and you go back to the treatment room, which is this huge empty room except for this giant machine. You lay down on this cold table. They place the machine — I still have the markers that they used for where they put the machine — it’s little blue dots. It takes less than 10 minutes, even for the double dose.”
Caldwell would get up and take the kids to school, make the hour-and-a-half drive to Hot Springs, do the double treatment, drive home, go to work.
“The first week, I thought, ‘This is nothing. Everything is fine. No big deal. I’m not turning red.’ They kept telling me how I’d look burnt. I didn’t have that at all.
“By the end of week two, the sunburn — radiation burn — was there. You can’t wear a bra. You get this cream they give you for that. It’s disgusting, but it helps. You can buy it at Walmart. If you ever have a sunburn, it’s great,” she said with a laugh.
Supplemental topical agents, which come in different brands, are utilized for the treatment of acute radiation dermatitis for breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. The skin reaction can result in itching, swelling, pain and general discomfort. Some of the agents are petroleum based while others are water based.
At the end of week four, Caldwell said, “By the time I was getting done, I was having a hard time getting on and off the table. To raise up, I had to do a full rollover and get my feet on the ground and get up that way.”
Having a support team helps, be it family, friends, co-workers and employers, or even an ex-husband.
“My two older kids were working. My two younger kids couldn’t drive yet. You don’t want to put people out. You don’t want to ask for favors and stuff. By the time I got to the end… Christmas Eve, my ex-husband, Martin Caldwell drove me to that treatment. He and I are still really good friends. I just didn’t think I could get there and back on my own. He drove me over, waited on me and got me back.
“I had a three-day weekend because of Christmas. Where I work, at Hampton’s, we take off the afternoon of Christmas Eve. So, I didn’t have to go back to work that day and I had three days off in a row. Then I went back to work and also had my last three treatments.
“It was not fun, but the good point was we caught it early. Less than three months of my life were actual physical treatments. You go back and forth to the doctor’s office for five years. The first year is every month. Matter of fact, at first it was every two weeks. Then it goes to every month, then every three months, six months and once per year. I’ve been cancer free now for five years.”
Her children: Joe Evans, Andrea Caldwell, Matt Caldwell and Katy Kesterson — she’s married now, helped out, but some traditions went by the wayside. “I think we had spaghetti for Thanksgiving because there was no way… Christmas, we missed Christmas completely. It was like, ‘Here’s some money and you can go buy your own presents. I’m sorry, it’s the best I can do.’ They were all old enough to know things weren’t going perfectly.
“It’s funny now because anytime I get a hiccup, they’re like, ‘Are you okay?’ Now they over-worry some. Without them, there wouldn’t have been a reason to do it. God puts us here for a reason. There are many things you’re supposed to do. Sometimes I tell Him He’s going to have to get me through it.”
“I did not have a bad time. Personally, yes. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but compared to what some other people go through, I had it easy. I know people who have had double mastectomies, thought they were fine and had to go back through stuff again. It’s not a disease I would wish on anybody. I don’t hate anybody enough for that, even the small stuff.”
“It scared my sister to death. They have genetic testing they will do there at CHI. I went through that to see if there were any genetic things that were showing up on me so my sister would know, and my kids would know. Not a single genetic thing showed up at all.
The 5-year-breast cancer-specific survival rate for Stage I Breast Cancer is 98%-100%. according to Weiss A, Chavez-MacGregor M, Lichtensztajn DY, et al. Validation study of the American Joint Committee on Cancer eighth edition prognostic stage compared with the anatomic stage in breast cancer. JAMA Oncol. 4(2):203-209, 2018,
Still, one must remain vigilant.
“This year I had a little bit of a scare during my self-exam. I found a knot. CHI was really good and got me in for another mammogram. What I was feeling was just a calcification, but they did find something else about three months ago. They did a needle biopsy at the mammogram center. It came back and was just a calcification. I can tell you right now, just the thought — first, finding the lump was scary; waiting on the results — you just keep on going. You do everything you have to do, but it was one of the most times I’ve been the most nervous in quite some time.
“I do know that when the girls start getting the right ages they’ll start getting checked.”
The age for getting checked has been getting younger. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force once recommended routine mammograms at age 50. New and more inclusive science about breast cancer in people younger than 50 has enabled them to expand their prior recommendation and encourage all women to get screened in their 40s. They have long known that screening for breast cancer saves lives, and the science now supports all women getting screened, every other year, starting at age 40.
“My dad came down with prostate cancer in his 50s,” Caldwell said. “He thought he had it beat and died… I think he was 58 or 59. Everything is starting sooner now.”
There have been some local people who have complained, stating that articles on breast cancer are unnecessary because women are already aware of the disease. One offended woman said, “I don’t need to read it. Women know about breast cancer.”
Caldwell’s response, “Goodness, we don’t know a thing about it. We don’t know why we get it, sometimes. We don’t have a clue. I don’t smoke or have any bad habits. I might have an occasional drink and that’s it.
“Get checked! That little bit of pressure for a little bit of time is a whole lot better than going through any of the rest of it. I can’t stress it enough. And I was an every-five-year mammogram person. I hit 50, and I thought maybe a little more often, especially after my dad… just cancer in the family. I decided to start doing it every year. If they hadn’t found it when it was small a year later, there’s no telling how far along it would’ve been. It wasn’t painful. I didn’t feel anything. When you’re finding lumps, it’s not like there’s a big ol’ lump there. Something’s just not smooth as you’re running your hands.
“If you don’t want to do it every year, at least go get a baseline so there’s something for them to look at the next time to see if there are any changes.
Readers may have noticed that Caldwell laughs a throughout many of her answers. Those who know her know that it’s just her effervescence. She’s got a good sense of humor, and despite her health scares, she remains upbeat and positive. And, why not? Studies are being done to see whether or not laughter and humor have a healing effect that can be measured. The same for remaining positive as often as one can.
“If you haven’t been around somebody who’s had it, you don’t know what they go through. Most women, I think when they get it, try to stay upbeat for their families, try to get everything done at home, try to get everything done at work, try to take care of all of their commitments. It’s hard on the person who has it, it’s hard on the family around them and it’s hard on the person who has to pick up the pieces. I wouldn’t want to do it by myself.”
Her advice for anyone confronting breast cancer for the first time. “Make a list of what your most important things are. Forget the ones that aren’t. You’ve got to prioritize. If you don’t put yourself in the top three or four of the things you’re working for, it’s going to make your life so much more difficult getting through it. I was always on the bottom of my list before and I had a long list of things to do.
“I was lucky that my job worked with me because I was missing half a day every day of the week. Toward the end, the second half of the day I was basically, ‘Hand me the paper you want me to sign.’ I had my kids, and at that point I had to put me after them. Everything else took back seats, if not in the wagon, then behind us.
“There were a few things I let go of that I don’t miss them or even feel guilty. There are some I had to let go that I think maybe I should’ve kept up with that a little bit more.”
When someone is accustomed to being so active between work, family, organizations and hobbies, it’s difficult at times for those people to learn to slow down. Caldwell said she finds that to be true.
“All my friends say, ‘Phyllis, you have to learn the word ‘no’.’ My kids say I know it,” she joked. “We’re looking for more volunteers at the fairground so I can say no more often. We’re looking for more volunteers at the Elks so I can so no more often. Volunteer work is important. I love it.”
“Anytime that anything comes up that’s a little hinky, it’s like, ‘Hey. Can we test that?’ and they’ll say, ‘It’s fine, Phyllis. It’s from a sunburn ages and ages ago, or it’s just a mole. It hasn’t changed in years.’ It makes you a lot more conscious of things. Before, if I’d found that little bitty knot any other time, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it. I definitely wouldn’t have been calling the next day and saying I need another mammogram.”
During her interview for Women in Business, Caldwell said, “Believe in yourself. Know
that if you don’t have a specific skill, you can still learn it. I am a firm believer that you can do it all.”
Caldwell certainly does quite a lot… including surviving a heart attack and breast cancer. “Now, I’ve got grandkids. That was another thing. I’ve got three grandkids I get to see right now, and the other kids don’t even have kids yet.
“Once you’re through it, it makes you love your life more.”