Martha Courtney once said that she would rather have a gun pointed at her than have to face cancer. Three months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I always feared chemotherapy, the pain, and I always feared getting sick. Every horrible thing that I could imagine, I thought that about cancer," she said. "I said that the biggest fear in anything that could come my way, my biggest fear was getting cancer. And here I was; I got cancer."
It was the summer of 2010. For more than four decades, Courtney had been a guiding light for anyone who called 911 in Saline County. Her life was dedicated to helping other people in times of their most desperate needs as an emergency services dispatcher.
But then she had her annual mammogram.
"A few days later I got a letter that said something was not normal," she said. "I don't know if I was just naive or arrogant or what, but I was thinking 'Oh, it's no big deal.' I just figured it was just blurb in the picture. So I went to have an ultrasound and the radiologist said you need to see a surgeon. That was all he said."
All the while she continued to believe "it was just a little bump, no big deal." Courtney said doctors set up the surgery so fast that "I didn't even have time to think." Days after the surgery in which a tumor was removed from her breast, Dr. James Hagans called and broke the news.
"I understood the words, but I still thought it was no big deal. Denial, I think, is a good word to describe it," Courtney said of being told the lump removed from her breast was malignant. "I just instantly thought, 'We'll do what we need to do and Mama's going to be OK."
Her family reacted differently. Her husband, Ronnie, drove her to all but one doctor's appointment and therapy sessions. She said her youngest son took a leave from the Army, brought his grandchildren and stayed for 10 days. Her oldest son took vacation time and also had his family stay with her "24-7."
"All I've got is boys and Mama doesn't get sick," Courtney said. "Mama took them to football practice, picked them up from school, did homework with them and always had supper on the table. Mama was always there and when Mama got seriously sick, it was tough on them."
She added, "But it was the best 10 days of my entire life. The kids were running around in the yard playing and the adults all sat around the carport talking and reminiscing."
Days after the surgery, the doctors told her that it appeared the cancer had not spread from the tumor, but they still wanted her to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She had four chemotherapy treatments, but much to everyone's surprise, she felt no ill effects.
"It was basically a walk-in-the-park," she said. "I was never sick; I never lost my hair or anything. I just had an IV for an hour and it was no big deal. But the doctor said 'please don't tell people how easy it was for you.' He said 'you are the absolute extraordinary.'"
Radiation therapy, however, did not turn out to be so easy.
"I had 33 treatments and that kicked my butt," Courtney said. "I would work 10-hour days Monday through Thursday, have chemo on Friday and still be good on the following Monday. With radiation, I would drag into work. I wasn't sure if the months of treatment were finally wearing on me, or the stress was finally catching up. But it really wore me out."
Due to the therapy, even after 45 years of service as a dispatcher, Courtney decided to move to a different position.
"I was not able to do my dispatch job as well as I did in the past. I realized I couldn't get the words I needed to say. I couldn't risk a firefighter, policeman or citizen's life. I just knew it was time, so I took a job in the records department," she explained.
But during radiation treatments, she continued "to drag" into the office. Courtney said what got her through, aside from friends, family and co-workers, were angels in disguise. She also began having continuous thoughts of her father who had died two years before.
"I believe in signs. I don't always understand the sign, but I believe that God sends them to me," she said. "I started dreaming of him (her father) nearly every night. I thought about him nearly every hour of every day. It was really a weird experience. I really wasn't sure if it was a sign that I was going to be OK or that it was a sign that I wasn't going to be OK. It was kind of unnerving, but I couldn't get him off my mind."
But there was another sign from beyond that came through the door of the Bryant Police Department, where she was working at that time as a 911 dispatcher. She said AT&T had sent a repairman, but it was not the usual person.
"While I was walking him up to the equipment room, the man said 'I don't know why they sent me; I don't work on 911 equipment,'" Courtney said.
"While he was working on the equipment, an officer asked me if I was OK and if I needed anything. The repairman looked toward us and I just nonchalantly said, 'It's chemo — breast cancer,' and I went back to work."
A few minutes later, the repairman stepped into Courtney's office and asked, "Do you believe in the spirit?"
"He asked to pray with me," she explained. "He sat down across the desk from me and when he reached out and touched my hands, there was such a peace that came over me. It was absolutely awesome! That man prayed the most powerful prayer I have every heard in my life and I've gone to church since I was 2 weeks old. I just instantly had a moment where I knew everything was going to OK."
She added, "I never saw the man before, never saw him again. Before he left, he said 'You are going to be OK.' I told him, 'Yes, I am and now we both know why you were sent here today.' It still gives me goose bumps today. I felt like a country girl from Arkansas was visited by an angel. There is no doubt in my mind."
But even with her anxieties subsided, Courtney said there were many moments when the medicine and treatments made her extremely ill. She said there were days when she would hold on to the sides of the couch because she was afraid of falling off it. On top of everything, while undergoing radiation, Courtney got a kidney stone.
She looks back now and is able to laugh, explaining that "I've never done anything the easy way."
But she survived and today remains cancer-free. Courtney said around Christmas she did "a lot of soul searching," had discussions with her family and retired in April. Today she spends a lot of time searching through family history. She is passionate about genealogy.
Courtney thanks her three families — her immediate family, the church family, and all her friends and co-workers — for their support. She keeps her head up and stays positive, but also remains grounded.
"I had a mammogram in May of this year and there is a place they are watching in my right breast," Courtney said. "I've lost about 30 pounds and they believe that is causing the tissue there to get dense, but I will have another mammogram in December. So we are just sitting here wondering what we are going to find out in December."
No matter the results, Courtney has already faced her greatest fear once and beaten cancer. Even at 65, she is ready to tackle anything.
"The first time I got cancer I knew we were going to beat it. I had no doubt," she said. "I was one of the lucky ones (as a survivor). Some people aren't that lucky. And I have a lot of people to thank. Everyone has always been around and given me so much support. They looked out for me and guided me where I need to be — all three sets of family. They have been awesome."
Martha and Ronnie Courtney have two children, Lt. Scotty Courtney of the Saline County Sheriff’s Office and retired Army Master Sgt. Greg “Lynn” Courtney. They also have three grandchildren, 16-year-old Dylan, 11-year-old Erica, and Rachel, 9.
The Courtney family are members of Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church on Arkansas 5 in Benton.