Jean Benson, Beyond Hospice: A Modern Day Miracle

By Leslie Moore

Jean Benson, Beyond Hospice: A Modern Day Miracle

I met 79 year-old Jean Benson at her lovely Wachesaw Plantation home, where she met me at the door looking fabulous, wearing perfect makeup and fashionable clothes – and a huge welcoming smile. During our visit, I learned that a week before our interview, Jean, an avid golfer, shared a win with three other women at a member-member golf tournament. I also learned that in October of 2010, only a few short months ago, Jean was told she only had six to eight weeks to live!

Jean and her husband of 57 years, John, a pharmacist, retired to the area 20 years ago from Westchester City, New York. Both love golf – John maybe a bit more than Jean. “John would play five days a week, but I’m happy with one or two days.” As the years passed, Jean made many friends and even became Mrs. Claus in the Murrells Inlet Christmas Parade. Neighborhood children knew where to come each year for trick-or-treating when Jean would dress up as the Cat in the Hat and wait on her porch with treats.

Jean’s journey through the hell of cancer began in 2008, when she found something “not right” on her left breast, just below her nipple. “I’ve always taken good care of myself and had annual mammograms,” Jean told me, and so she immediately made an appointment to make sure nothing was wrong. After a mammogram and ultrasound everything looked normal, and Jean was told it must be just fatty tissue.

Jean Benson: Photo 2

However, late in 2009, something changed, and the spot on Jean’s breast began to pucker. Jean goes for checkups every three months due to diabetes and talked to her doctor, Philip Nicol, about the change. He immediately sent her to Dr. Craig Brackett at Coastal Carolina Breast Center. A biopsy confirmed the worst, and on March 23, 2010, Jean found out she had cancer.

“You could’ve taken a 2 x 4 and smacked me in the head, and I wouldn’t have been any more shocked,” remembers Jean. “Cancer picks whoever it feels like choosing – it’s an ugly disease.”

Even in the face of this devastating news, Jean stayed upbeat. She had her husband and soul mate behind her, as well as the love and support of her three children, her niece, their spouses and her six wonderful grandchildren.

On April 12, 2010, one day past her 56th wedding anniversary, Jean had her first lymphectomy. All six nodes removed were positive for cancer. Two weeks later, Jean had surgery again, this time sixteen lymph nodes brought the grim news that the cancer had spread.

“I went from Stage 1 to Stage 4 cancer just like that,” remembered Jean. “I was shocked! I couldn’t understand how this happened so quickly.” Jean’s next stop was at Dr. Darren Mullins’ oncology office in Murrells Inlet, where she made the decision to begin chemotherapy.

“I have been so fortunate to have the nicest doctors. The doctors and their staff have treated me with so much kindness.” Jean laughed and continued, “They must take classes in how to be kind, because they treat me like I’m family!”

Although she was never in pain during her chemo, she was exhausted and had no appetite, losing nearly 30 pounds. “After the first three treatments, I bragged about not losing my hair, but then it started falling out in clumps.” Jean asked her daughter, Janet, who lives in Calabash, North Carolina, to come and cut her hair. Janet buzzed her mother’s hair, but the two women were able to laugh a little and joked with each other about Jean’s “beautifully shaped head!” “There was no use to cry about hair,” said Jean. “It will grow back.” Today, Jean’s hair is still thin and she wears an array of beautiful hats that coordinate with her outfits. The day we met, she wore a cute, white billed cap studded with sparkly stones.

Jean was determined to make the best of her situation and to never give up, even in throes of cancer treatment. On Saturday, October 2, she participated in the “In the Pink” Breast Cancer Awareness Walk with friends and family walking beside her “chariot,” a pink golf car. “I was too sick to walk, but I was determined to participate.”

By the end of October, Jean was a very sick woman. The surgically implanted port used to deliver her chemo had become infected; her blood count was so low she had to have six units of blood transfused to keep her alive. Dr. Brackett did surgery to remove the port and told Jean and John that the cancer had spread to her lungs, and he would like to do a biopsy that involved surgery.

When Jean, John and her daughter came home, Jean asked them all to sit down around the table. “I wanted to know what they’d been told. How long did I have?” John was barely able to talk about what he had learned and had to leave the room. But, Jean’s daughter, Janet, gently told her mom that they had been told she was not expected to live past Thanksgiving.

“I made up my mind right then that I was going to live my life, however much time I had, the best I knew how. I decided not to have the lung biopsy or any more treatment, and I called Hospice. If I’m going, I’m going my way,” Jean said in a voice filled with acceptance and peace.

The staff of Tidelands Hospice was wonderful to Jean. They supplied oxygen and all necessary medical equipment, but more than that, they gave her the support she needed during this difficult time and enabled her to keep living. “John and I never really cried too much, once in awhile we did cry at night, but during the day we had droves of company!” Jean brought out a large basket filled with greeting cards that she received, some from Canada, England and all over the country.

Jean planned her funeral to spare her family that grim ordeal. She and John had both decided they wanted to donate their bodies for medical use and, with the help of the Hospice social worker, the arrangements were made. The pastor of Belin United Methodist Church in Murrells Inlet, Mike Alexander, is a neighbor of Jean’s, and he agreed to officiate at the memorial service, stopping by her house to iron out the details.

But Jean did not die. Thanksgiving came and went, then Christmas. On New Year’s Eve, Jean felt well enough to go out, and wearing a black fedora, she and John rang in the New Year with friends, dancing the night away. Jean continued to improve. After St. Patrick’s Day, Jean told John that she thought they might make it to their 57th anniversary on April 11.

Jean Benson: Photo 3

And then, miraculously, after becoming well enough to begin treatment again, Jean was discharged or “graduated” from Hospice. “The girls from Hospice came, and I wore a big pink hat. It was a real celebration! Not many people graduate from Hospice, you know,” Jean said laughing.

On a visit with Dr. Brackett, he mentioned that radiation treatment was now an option for Jean. At first, she was hesitant, but then decided to give it a try and made the drive from Murrells Inlet to Georgetown Radiation for 32 days of treatments. However, she decided not to be tested right away to see if the cancer is still present. This plucky woman is taking life one day at a time.

“Cancer thrives when people feel sorry for themselves. I did feel sorry for myself sometimes, but I had to accept it and do what I had to do. I have had so much love and support from my family, my friends and neighbors, and caring doctors and staff.” Jean tears up when she thinks of all the people who’ve shown her so much love during her illness.

Her friends and family remain steadfast and are amazed at Jean’s strength and determination. One friend, Sasee writer, Judie Schaal, says that “Jean is a constant inspiration to all her friends. She handles every situation with a smile and a positive attitude. This includes the heartache of missing a winning putt on the 18th hole to facing the challenge of life threatening cancer. She’s the first to help out a needy friend and the last to exit the dance floor. And all this never changed when she planned her own funeral thinking she only had a few months to live. She is still under treatment and still a marvel to all who know her.”

Miracles do happen. Just ask Jean.

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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3 Responses to “Jean Benson, Beyond Hospice: A Modern Day Miracle”

  1. I have known Jean for a long time and I don’t think I have ever seen her without a smile. She is a great lady an inspiration for all of us.

  2. Skip & Denise Robertson says:

    We just had the pleasure to meet John on the golf course and you could tell that Jean is a special lady by the way he talked about her. Glad to have read the article, very inspirational story….glad to see positiveness win!

  3. Weston Sawyer says:

    Ron Stock and I ( Weston Sawyer ) were fortunate enough to play golf with John at the Legends Parkland golf course on 9/7 2011.
    We listen to John explain Jean’s battle with cancer and pray she has a complete recovery.

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