After discovering she had cancer last year, Debbie Warren decided to simplify her life and focus her recovery on what she knows best — cheerleading.
"Go, Fight, Win" became the motto for her recovery.
"Everything I learned about fighting cancer, I learned from cheerleading," Warren says. "The commitment to 'don't stop and don't quit.'"
Warren's approach to battle breast cancer might not be typical, but it works for her, she said.
Warren, 42, has been involved with cheerleading since high school. She currently serves as a vice president at Christian Cheerleaders of America, a nonprofit organization based in Winston-Salem, N.C., that runs cheerleading camps and clinics nationwide, targeting Christian and private schools and colleges.
Each summer, Warren works with CCA staff members assigned to operate regional cheerleading camps.
"Cheerleading is such a huge part of my life," she says.
At home, Warren sees herself as a typical suburban wife and mother.
Warren and her husband, Glenn, are raising four boys: Micah, 17; Jacob, 14; Aaron, 11; and Levi, 3; and a cocker spaniel named Laci, on a quiet street in Live Oak Preserve's Maplewood village.
Glenn Warren, also 42, is the part-time children's pastor at Tampa Covenant Church in Carrollwood. He was a teacher at Berean Academy until the private school in Lutz shut its doors last year, leaving him without income and the family without health insurance.
During the school year, Debbie Warren juggles work and homeschooling Jacob and Aaron. She transports Micah, a rising senior at Wharton High School, to and from basketball practices and choral rehearsals, and tends to Levi's needs.
Warren says there is nothing unique about her medical condition or financial struggles. Her ordeal is similar to those of a surprising number of middle-class women in communities such as New Tampa, she says.
Those women are heading up families struggling to pay bills and medical expenses due to unexpected illnesses. Yet they remain committed to maintaining a sense of normality for their children.
Until November, Warren's only serious medical problem was a chronic back condition. Then she spotted a lump the night before she left to judge a cheerleading contest in Georgia.
"I was joking with my friend on the way to Georgia about it," Warren says. "I told her, 'You'd better not bring me a pink ribbon. I'm an orange girl.' "
After the trip, Warren visited her doctor for a check-up. The news wasn't good. The diagnosis was Stage 2 breast cancer.
"I don't have cancer anywhere in my family," Warren says. "My grandparents have lived into their 90s. My parents are healthy. It was quite a shock."
Warren had surgery shortly before Thanksgiving at Florida Hospital Tampa on East Fletcher Avenue, putting her family's holiday plans on hold.
Her recovery was complicated by a serious reaction to chemotherapy treatment. Last month Warren completed seven weeks of radiation.
She initially struggled to cope with her illness.
"My husband and I cried more than we breathed that first month because we didn't know how we were going to get through it," Warren says.
They wondered how the news about Warren's illness would affect the boys.
"We didn't keep anything from them," she says. "It obviously was the most devastating time of our lives."
"We were scared," Aaron says.
Jacob agrees: "Everything just, like, stopped."
Micah, being the eldest, had a better understanding of the disease, he says.
Shortly after Warren's diagnosis, she went to Jacksonville to judge another cheerleading contest. She wonders if it was an omen, but all of the cheerleaders in the competition were wearing orange ribbons on their shoes.
"That became my color," Warren said. "I love orange. It's bright, alive, and it's energy."
Warren's family and friends rallied around her, adopting the orange to celebrate Warren's recovery. They staged fundraisers and sold orange and pink T-shirts to help Warren pay for medical expenses.
Warren's mood took a nosedive in January with the loss of her hair as a result of chemo treatments.
When she felt better, Warren began blogging about her bout with cancer as therapy and as a way to share her story with others. Her blog postings can be found under her name at caringbridge.org.
"I couldn't have gotten through it without my Christian faith," Warren says.
Warren acknowledged she has dealt with frustration and anger due to the disease. She feels like she has missed a year of her life.
But then, Warren says, "Why not me? There is no rhyme or reason for this.
"You have your life. That's all that matters."
"My strength has been my four boys, my husband and family. Glenn has been so supportive. This has made us so much stronger."
Warren sees her illness as a life lesson for her sons.
"Hopefully when they go through something difficult, they will remember when Mom went through difficult times too," she says.
Warren is recovering. The tumor has been removed.
"Now I can turn around and help others go through this," she says.
Warren hopes her motto resonates with other cancer survivors.
"I love 'Go, Fight, Win,'" she said. "That's what you are doing with cancer. You give 100 percent. You don't give up."