Brenda Hoggard is definitely the proud mother of five children. She is a strong woman with a strong faith. She is a 4 foot, 11.5 inch power walker who loves to tear up a few miles of road in the early morning hours.
She is technically retired but in constant motion, figuratively running more roads with family and friends. She has a truly beautiful smile and a disposition to match.
A few days before she turned 65, Hoggard learned she also had breast cancer.
She found the lump just a few months before she was due to have her annual mammogram, and called her doctor but not her children until she was more certain about what she was dealing with. “They were very upset,” she says.
Hoggard was a week shy of her Nov. 24, 2020 birthday when Dr. Alicia Vinyard, surgical oncologist at the Georgia Cancer Center, told her it was stage two breast cancer. Characteristically straightforward, Hoggard asked if she would lose her breast, volunteering: “If you need to take them, take them.”
Instead she began to see breast cancer specialist Dr. Priyanka Raval, taking four rounds of chemotherapy before her lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy. But she never took another step alone.
“Like I said, I have very good kids. I never went to chemo alone.” Her oldest son, Chester Johnson, who lives outside of Tampa with his wife and two children, would come back once a month for the multi-hour vigil at the Georgia Cancer Center. Taylor Hoggard, her next to the youngest, moved back in with her and her youngest, Katai Hoggard, a recent graduate of the Hull College of Business at Augusta University, was already there.
“I was concerned but never angry and that is the truth. Because if I got angry, I couldn’t get through it. I had to stay positive. I have kids and grandkids. I want to see them grow up. That is what kept me going.”
So she gave it to God to help her handle and fought instead with his grace and mercy without ever losing her signature smile.
Cancer was not something she had thought about. In fact, while rates of the state and nation’s top two killers, cancer and cardiovascular disease, are highest in Black Americans and Georgians, Hoggard didn’t see either when she looked around her large family.
She was born and bred in Burke County, Georgia, directly south of Richmond County and Augusta, Georgia, a county of 827 square miles with a population of almost 23,000, which is about half Black and which has mostly trended downward for the past decade. It is one of Georgia’s eight original counties, developed as the site of large cotton plantations, and farming and timber production have remained its mainstay. But it’s also home to one of two huge nuclear power facilities owned by Georgia Power.
She always wanted children, and grew up around plenty of them in Burke County. Her mother was 16 when Hoggard was born, so grandparents Rosa and James Ingram, who were married for 50 years before he passed first, ended up raising Hoggard and her sister along with their own 12 children, which included Hoggard’s mother.
Hoggard, who seems reticent to sit still anywhere for too long, loves the busy of big family get-togethers and cooking for her children on her “BBQ anything” grill, although the air fryer now gives the grill serious competition.
She was a working mother, who has run dining rooms for major PGA tournaments, and is now retired from a 25-year career as a collections supervisor.
“I was the person who calls you on the phone and harasses you about paying your bills,” she says in response to questions about a career that doesn’t seem to fit her countenance, then sets her visitor straight.
“You don’t have to yell and scream at people, you don’t have to demean people, you don’t have to treat people like dirt because they can’t pay their bills and I wasn’t that kind of collector. Most people want to pay their bills but people get caught up, they lose their job, they go to one income, their husband passes, their wife passes, something happens with their children and you have to be sympathetic with those people. You just have to show them how to pay their bills.”
No doubt her calm compassion was not always reciprocated, and she has been hung up on, called names “you couldn’t imagine,” and there are those people who just don’t want to pay.
But she was characteristically unflappable, kind and direct. “That’s just life. You have to treat people right, even in bad circumstances. Everybody has a story and you don’t know their story. You don’t know my story, unless I tell it to you.”
A big part of her story is her children, and she says she was and is a loving but firm mom, who would ask her children what the church service at Greater Young Zion, her church for 26 years, was about to make sure they weren’t napping during it.
She didn’t go to college, but Hoggard made the importance of education clear to all her children, and they all went to college for at least two years, and three earned degrees. Allan Hoggard, a firefighter and her youngest son, is back in school now and Taylor plans to go back. Her oldest child, Azure Evans, also lives in Augusta and is an insurance representative with State Farm.
“We were always priority for her. Having to put someone before yourself is a huge sacrifice and she always made sacrifices for us every single day,” says the youngest Katai. “She guided me well, she taught me well. She taught me to speak up for myself, defend myself, to not settle for less because you deserve the world and anybody who doesn’t give you that is not worth your time and energy,” she says of life lessons taught by Hoggard and applicable to potential mates, friends, even family.
Another lesson now high on the list for Hoggard’s female children is looking out for their breast health. In her family, breast cancer, she says, definitely starts and stops with her.
Hoggard, who comes from a big family of long livers, never suspected breast cancer would be part of her story. But her story is a great example of the individuality that is clear even among a high-risk group. Her breast cancer is the only cancer she is aware of in her family and there has been no cardiovascular disease to report either. But she names off a long-time friend who is a two-time cancer survivor, and another friend who is a 20-year cancer survivor and another friend whose sister also is a longtime survivor, all of whom are Black.
The chemotherapy pill she had been on for a few months in late Fall, had caused hand foot syndrome, a known side effect, so the soles of her feet were peeling and easily blistered and she had to cut back to fast walking just a couple of miles a couple of days a week from the four to five miles most days of the week she prefers. She says her hands also are noticeably darker but these are the only side effects she has experienced from her treatment.
Asked if she is concerned about any long-term consequences of her treatment, like cardiovascular disease which can surface in response to some treatments and/or because many of the risk factors for these common conditions are the same, Hoggard embraces that possibility the way she did the cancer reality: with information, appropriate action, prayer and powerful positivity.
The desire to know and do her part is what drove her to be one of 13 enrollees in a pilot study at MCG and its teaching affiliate AU Health System, looking for cardiovascular impact in patients with a recent history of breast cancer.
“I want to do everything possible to be aware of what can happen to me and what are my choices.”
Her 66th birthday found her back in Florida, where son Chester hosted a surprise birthday/one year after cancer diagnosis survivor party. They already had plans for Christmas and were making plans about a family trip to Paris in 2022.
In the new year, she also is looking forward to talking, mainly listening, to other individuals at a monthly support group for other women with breast cancer. “There are a lot of people with cancer whohave no one. I am blessed, I have all my kids,” she says. “Hopefully I can put something in somebody’s ear to make them feel better just for a day.”
Her own mantra remains: “I had cancer, cancer did not have me. That is a big difference. That is how you have to look at it,” she says then repeats the phrase more emphatically.
“Don’t think because you have cancer you are going to die. We are all going to die someday, God promised that. Why not enjoy every day to the fullest? Think about what you are going to do the days that you are alive.”