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When she first was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, Toni Ethington Roberts said she did what many of us would do: She went to the bookstores for help.
She read and read, but none of the most popular self-help books seemed to shed light on the long, dark tunnel into which she was staring, so she said she decided to do something most people can’t do: She wrote her own story.
Monday, just a few weeks after publishing her personal testimony of life and the challenges she has faced, Roberts, a native of Simpsonville, died at her home in Mount Sterling. She was 52.
She left behind not only a grieving husband, three daughters, a grandson, sisters, parents and thousands of loved ones, she dared leave behind a legacy.
Roberts published “It’s Okay, Living and Loving Through Cancer” through the most difficult days of her life.
Those who talk of the pain of writing have no idea what she endured.
This most lethal form of cancer, thought to be in remission, came back into Roberts’ life in May 2008 and spread within her abdomen, but she continued to go to her computer every day and bat out thousands of words despite pain that would immobilize many.
As her life slipped into incessant pain and morphine drips and shorter and shorter periods of lucidity and comfort, Roberts continued her work.
“I think the book kept her going as long as she did,” said her oldest sister, Terry Ethington of Simpsonville. “Bill [her husband] said he thought that was what kept her going.”
Even until her last days, she met with friends and talked to people interested about the book. She could speak only for short minutes and in breathless, almost whispered, sentences, but the message she wanted to convey has been shouted to the masses.
The process took her about six months to write, and her first foray into publishing became her last.
“God helped me write this book,” she said by telephone on Friday afternoon, her voice faint in delivery but firm in its conviction. “I just felt compelled to write it. I never would have done that.”
You may know Roberts. She grew up in Simpsonville, the youngest of Elmo and Nancy Ethington’s four daughters. Like her older sisters – Pat Carriss and Lynn Land are the others -- she was intelligent, athletic and vivacious. She attacked life and made the most of every opportunity.
About 28 years ago, she married Dr. Bill Roberts, an internist from Mount Sterling, and they embraced life to the fullest. “Everything they did was physical – skiing, boating, hiking – they were in such good shape,” Suttor said.
They produced three daughters of their own: Jenifer Steger, 26, Stephanie, 24 and Kimberly, 20. In 2007, Jenifer had a son, and the family reveled in that joy.
And the process of writing this book started with the idea of writing letters to her grandson, Will, who will be 2 in March.
“She was looking for a book to read and never really found one,” Terry Ethington said. “I said, ‘Why don’t you write a letter to your grandson and tell him about you.”
So that’s what Roberts started to do. She wrote a couple of letters – “I wanted him to know me and thought he never would,” she said – and then she decided to turn her thoughts into the book.
“I’m Okay” is a emotional journey about how Roberts approached cancer when she originally was diagnosed and how it brought her and her family closer to God. It talks about suffering and treatment – she is a nurse married to a doctor and understands and subtly explains those nuances -- and fear, to be sure. But her words also describe hope, and delicately, personally she peels away the petals from the bloom of understanding.
“People tell me they hear me talking in it,” she said. “And I wanted it to be a one-on-one conversation.”
Said Terry Ethington: “She started writing, and when she got to the very last chapter, she found out the cancer had returned. That gave her a very different perspective.
“She said she didn’t know if she could write that chapter. Bill was so angry [about the return of the disease], and she didn’t know if she should include that. I told her to write it that way, because otherwise people who have been through this might not find it real. And she did.”
During her long battle, Roberts gained notoriety for her struggle. She had treatment at the country’s best medical facilities, and three years is record territory for someone with her disease, and when her doctors told her she was improving, she elegantly and passionately gave her personal testimony to civic groups and charities and appeared on the 700 Club.
But the book became her ultimate vehicle to try to help people change their outlook.
Suttor acted as her editor, helping her to focus her thoughts and keep pushing along at the keyboard. They hired Ellen Gay Leathers-Morrill as their primary editor, and her sister Terry acted as their go-between.
“I think the book kept her going,” Ethington said. “She had such a drive to get this done. She worked at it every single day. It was something to keep her going. She was in a lot of pain and on medication, but she never stopped.
Roberts admits that she hopes this book will be a legacy that lasts beyond her family and friends.
“I wanted to get this story in the right hands of the right people,” she said.
Said Steger: “This is all the good advice you’ve wanted to pass down to your children, and now it will live there for generations. It speaks to people.”
Roberts completed the manuscript and submitted it just before Christmas, and that’s about the time her health really started to decline. Her family kept vigil in Mt. Sterling, and friends and extended family members kept in touch through a tree of e-mail distribution.
There was a parade of visitors to her home, with many old friends from high school and college stopping by right up until the very end.
Beverly Taylor Greenwell of Frankfort visited Roberts just last weekend. They were best friends and former roommates, and Greenwell had lost her husband, Richard, quickly and tragically just about a year ago. She had not visited Roberts in recent months because of her own pain.
“She only wanted to make sure I was okay,” Greenwell said. “She wasn’t worried about herself. She only wanted to know that I would be OK and that Bill would be OK. That’s what she talked about.”
Roberts also heard from total strangers, too. She said she was surprised by how well the book has sold and how people have responded.
“How many books have you read and you thought about writing the author but didn’t?” Roberts asked. “My daughter has received about 50 e-mails from people. I’ve heard from many friends. It has been amazing to me how people have responded.”
Said Steger: “It’s amazing to watch someone going through so much physical pain – technically in the darkest moment of her life, hurting so badly – and to see the kind of attitude she has kept up, how positive, how she has inspired so many people.
“She always looks to God, and that’s what is so encouraging. She never has been by herself, never walked without God by her side.
Roberts’ final hours were painful and long, her body fighting as long as it could until, until, surrounded by her husband and daughters in her home, she could fight no more.
Here’s how Steger summarized her mom’s approach to life, and perhaps therein lies the truest epitaph that can be mustered. “You have to be appreciative of your experiences,” she said. “You have to look at the situation and figure out how you’re going to grow and what you’re going to do.”
Toni Roberts knew what she was going to do, and now you can read about it, too.
“It’s Okay: Living and Loving Through Cancer” by Toni Ethington Roberts, will be available at the Sixth & Main Coffee House in Shelbyville or can be ordered from Barnes & Noble, through iUniverse.com (search for ISBN number 1440119385) or by calling 1-800-AUTHORS (same order number). If you have questions, contact Stephanie Roberts at (859) 585-3091.