Musical mom navigates cancer survivorship her own way

Perla RobertsonDiagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 at age 37, Perla Robertson was putting a painful past behind her when, as she says, life upset her apple cart—again.

A few weeks ago, she learned the cancer is back.

Knowing what she now knows, she’ll willingly accept help when it’s offered, and she’ll seek the support she needs along the way. She encourages others fighting cancer to do the same.

A free event marking its 29th year helps with that and more. Carle invites cancer survivors, those still battling the disease and their family and friends to attend Cancer Survivors Day from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 11 at The Vineyard Church, Urbana.

“We consider every patient a survivor the moment they receive a cancer diagnosis,” event organizer and cancer researcher Tracy Sharp said. “Our providers and our event committee are always eager for people to attend this event to learn more about life beyond cancer, to celebrate successes and to add another layer of essential support.”

For Perla and many others, that doesn’t happen overnight.

Perla Robertson and her best friend, both cancer survivors“As time went on, I knew I could rely on my friends to take care of my kids. People prepared meals for us solidly for six months,” Perla said. “People really wanted to help, and I felt so loved when people would offer to clean my house, would pray for me and would really check on me so I knew I hadn’t been forgotten.”

Perla wasn’t surprised when she learned she had cancer the first time.

“I was busy, and I didn’t get it taken care of,” said the wife, mother and music lover who had been experiencing pain. “In my gut, I had a feeling.”

Like others newly diagnosed with cancer, Perla wondered what role her family history played. She did some digging and discovered cancer killed several family members on her mother’s and her father’s sides. She asked herself, “Why was this such a secret?”

She and her husband, Rick, didn’t keep cancer a secret from their children, all of whom were younger than 7 years old at the time.

“We told the kids. We talked openly, but those early days I was in a bit of a fog. It was a bit of a blur,” Perla said.

Perla and RickOnce some key people in her life knew she had cancer, Perla admits she shut down. She didn’t reach out for help or support. She kept her challenges private.

Realizing that wasn’t working, that she needed ways to openly and creatively cope with cancer, Perla started writing about it on her blog. She wrote about having both breasts removed, followed by chemotherapy and then radiation. And she wrote about her family, her pet peeves and her passions.

She found the process both functional and therapeutic. She was able to sort out her feelings and share them how she wanted to share them.

Blogging was fairly new for her. Music, though? That had always been her thing.

She recalls feeling angry and scared when radiation treatments impacted her voice. One of her biggest worries was cancer ruining her ability to sing, something she said defines her to her core.

“My voice came back. I was able to sing and work with my students. I was still me,” Perla said.

Perla had beaten cancer. And she aimed to move on.

But life wasn’t the same. And much of it didn’t feel right.

“It had been about 18 months, and I still felt like my world was crashing down,” she said. “Life seemed to be moving on, but I didn’t feel like I was.”

About a year ago, her depression began to subside, in part because of the caring skills of Carle Cancer Center social worker Kimberly Harden.

Perla Robertson, facing cancer for the second timePerla is grateful Harden helped her see that life after cancer doesn’t go back to normal, but you develop a different sense of normal.

The admiration is mutual.

“I appreciate the spirit and resiliency Perla shows when discussing her cancer,” Harden said. “Perla has grown throughout her journey and is willing to reach out to others and discuss her experiences. 

“Perla shows other survivors there is life beyond cancer.”

The Carle Cancer Center Survivors Day Celebration is free and open to anyone touched by cancer—regardless of where they receive care. The event also features:

  • Light snacks
  • Care team speakers
  • Survivorship services information
  • A moving candle-lighting ceremony

For more information, please visit the Carle website or call (217) 383-6846.