Amanda Hill wore a black hat Thursday afternoon at Java Jaay Cafe in Decatur, hiding her freshly grown dark brown hair — a symbol of her slow recovery from a disease that kills about 1,600 Americans each day.
The burns on Hill’s back from radiation have begun to heal. Although her nerve cells were damaged, the twinkle that dwindled from her eyes during chemotherapy has returned.
Hill never imagined when she graduated from Hartselle High School in 2008 that she would face a journey of chemotherapy, radiation and self-realization four years later when most of her classmates were finishing college and starting their careers.
Hopeless and frustrated, the Decatur resident scoffed at friends and family who used religion to comfort her after her first cancer diagnosis in 2011.
“It’s hard for anyone who has not had cancer to really relate to somebody who has,” Hill said. “When I was first diagnosed, people would say, ‘God still loves you,’ and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ... It’s hard because people don’t know what to say.”
Hill grew up in the United Pentecostal Church but fell out with religion in her early teens. After her mother’s sudden death from a heart attack and kidney failure in 2007, Hill said she felt angry at God and used alcohol and self-harm as a release.
Hill’s life continued into a downward spiral until late 2011, when doctors informed the then 22-year-old nursing student that she had cervical cancer.
A month after undergoing outpatient surgery to remove the cancer, Hill was diagnosed with a rare form of carcinoma in her back, leaving her with a 20 percent chance of survival.
A few months into her treatment, Hill said a change came over her as she was lying in bed one night.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Hill said.
“This calm came over me, and I thought, ‘Maybe this is God trying to tell me something,’ so I ended up praying about it. I felt so much better the next day.”
About 1.7 million Americans and more than 27,000 Alabamians will be diagnosed with cancer this year, according to data from the American Cancer Society.
In November, doctors discovered another tumor that had grown on Hill’s hip during chemotherapy and radiation, and in January, Hill had surgery for a fourth and final bout of cancer.
Hill, whose cancer is now in remission, takes comfort in God’s influence over her life and smiles because cancer was “the worst and best thing that ever happened” to her.
“I’m a very broken person most of the time,” she said. “Any good that I do comes through God. If God wasn’t present in my life, I don’t know where I’d be — probably dead, honestly. God had given me strength when I thought I had nothing else.”
Inspired to help others, Hill has embarked on a 21 Random Acts of Kindness campaign this year. Hill said she has purchased lunch for a homeless person, paid for a customer’s prescription medication, donated to an HIV/AIDS and water crisis grassroots organization and more.
“It just makes me feel better because I know what it’s like to be in the homeless man’s position,” she said. “Maybe not what it’s like to be homeless, but I know what it’s like to be desperate and in need of help.”
Danville resident Ginger Day-Thayer, a family life director at Lifehouse Assembly of God in Vinemont, formed a close friendship with Hill in a biology class at Calhoun Community College in 2010.
Hill, who was forced to quit her nursing classes to undergo cancer treatment, now attends church with Day-Thayer and hopes to start her own ministry in the future.
“Amanda is the real deal,” Day-Thayer said. “She’s passionate about what the Lord is doing in her life, and she is not apologetic about it. A lot of Christians do what they want to do Monday through Friday and then get it together on Sunday to go to church. Not Amanda — that’s not the kind of person she is.”
Hill, 23, works as a pharmacy technician for Walgreen’s on Sixth Avenue Southeast and has health insurance to help pay medical expenses. Hill undergoes a body scan each month to detect potential cancers.
Hartselle resident Pauline Guidry, Hill’s best friend for almost eight years, has watched Hill stop smoking, drinking and get help for mental health issues that once haunted her.
“Amanda is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” she said. “And not only because she was 17 when she lost her mother, but she went through cancer, chemo and radiation like a champ.
“She is determined to live. In this life, she has things to do and she knows it.”
Lucy Berry can be reached at 256-340-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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