Doris Ramaly is a born warrior.
The child of missionary parents, she was born in Costa Rica and eventually chose a career in social services, taking the job in 2004 as director for Family Promise, an agency that coaches families who have been tossed into homelessness back into housing. She remains in that post.
Twice within the past five years, two battles with breast cancer have put her in the unfamiliar role of needing help from others.
Her first diagnosis was in 2015 and although it was “startling,” she said, the cancer was caught early and the skirmish seemed brief. After five months of treatment that included a lumpectomy, she was on her way to a win.
“Once you’ve overcome it you’re like, ‘Well, that wasn’t so bad.’”
As she approached the end of treatment and prepared to return to the “mammogram once a year” routine practiced by most women, the last in a series of diagnostic mammograms revealed a more virulent form of cancer had invaded her body.
“I was just sobbing when I found out that I had it again because I didn’t know what that meant. Was I gonna live? Was I gonna die?”
The second battle lasted 16 months and included much more extensive treatment: a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and a lot of reconstruction surgery.
What was it like to have to rely on others?
“I guess I never expected people to help me like they helped me. I never had that type of experience in my life ... I think our society teaches us to be independent, so when you get a diagnosis like that you become, at that point, more dependent on others.”
Among those others were her family, her church, her service club and her friends who performed many acts of caring. They went to treatments and medical appointments with her, listening for her when she couldn’t quite absorb what the doctors were saying; others sent loving reminders of their support.
Both her parents live in Longview, as does her brother and his family. Her sister is a missionary and lives in Mexico with her family. Ramaly wants friends and family of breast cancer patients to know how important they are to their loved one’s recovery.
“Be there for her in whatever manner that she needs it, whether it’s meals, whether it’s just being there,” she said.
One of Ramaly’s friends sent a package after each of her treatments.
“It made me feel like I had won a prize every week,” she said of the gifts such as “I Love Lucy” videos that made her laugh, or a funny little gadget.
“Nothing spectacular, just little things that could make you smile,” she said. “Every week, I looked forward to that gift.”
When she was first asked how long that second treatment lasted, she said 27 months. After checking her calendar, she corrected that number to 16 months. It seemed a lot longer, she said.
“You need cheerleaders,” she said. “Because you’re in a marathon. You don’t feel good. You’re tired. You’re just not in a good spot. You just need people to cheer you on.”
Even with the generous support of friends and family, the struggle was grueling.
Nevertheless, she was not a passive patient.
“I was one of those people who had to research everything … I was actively involved in talking to my doctors and knowing why I was doing the kinds of treatments I was doing, knowing my percentage rates, how that was going to help me,” she said.
“When it was hard and you don’t feel good after chemo, you have to remind yourself of why you’re doing this — because you’re trying to live.”
Ramaly, 55, also relied on her faith.
“My faith grew stronger. I was more aware of God being present in my life. He’s always been present but (throughout treatment) he was taking care of me. There were moments when I was overwhelmed with knowing he had brought me the right doctors, the right help that I needed,” she said, citing the medical professionals at Texas Oncology-Longview Cancer Center, especially medical oncologist Dr. Larry Frase.
“It’s not an experience I wanna go through again but I grew a lot. My relationship with Jesus Christ grew. I realized how much my friends cared about me.”
Her mother had breast cancer when she was 80 and is a 7-year cancer survivor. Ramaly saw the serenity her mother possessed “knowing God was with her … I just saw her be the picture of peace.”
Laughing, Ramaly said she didn’t have quite as much peace as her mom did during her ordeal, but she did hold fast to her faith. What peace she did experience was God’s peace, she said.
“Doris was extremely apprehensive and nervous at the time of her first visit, which is very common for individuals with newly diagnosed breast cancer. Once she understood her therapeutic options, she was determined to complete her course of therapy and had a positive attitude,” Frase said.
Her strength endured a second time.
“She had an outstanding attitude and continued to work full time throughout therapy. She continues to have a positive attitude and remains active, although she is nervous about developing recurrent disease
.... She has been able to function well despite her adversity, and she has not let her disease interfere with her generous spirit,” Frase said.
As Frase shepherded her through cancer treatment, Ramaly guides homeless families back to solid ground through Family Promise, formerly Longview Interfaith Hospitality Network. As of 2018, 193 families had come through the program. That encompasses 667 individuals, 413 of them children.
Family Promise is supported by a network of churches that give financial, material and volunteer support to the agency. Nine churches host families and four others offer some type of support. Clients do not fit the TV/movie depictions of homeless Americans as mostly single men with addiction problems or mental illness, she said. Some are two-parent families, others single dads with children or single moms with children. Others are grandparents raising grandchildren. Nationwide, families make up 31 percent of the homeless population.
“Usually they’re first-time homeless. They don’t have any experience being homeless and they’re scared to death,” she said. Any hygiene needs are met first, then temporary housing through the churches is arranged. Families then enter a guided program aimed to leave them self-sufficient at the end of their stay, usually about three months.
Heads of families must find a job and save half their income so they can pay a deposit and first month’s rent on housing. They must locate housing they can afford.
“We do money management, parenting classes, life skills training,” she said, as well as job interview and retention skills and organizational skills. Throughout the family’s time with Family Promise, children may continue to attend the school they attended before becoming homeless, causing less disruption to their lives.
Usually it’s a “bump in the road” that leaves families homeless, she said.
“It could be you have to choose between paying for your car to get fixed or paying the rent,” she said.
Or it might be medical. “Someone who was ill and couldn’t work so they lost their job. They couldn’t pay rent so they got evicted and here they are.”
Ancillary causes might include never having the chance to learn money management. Family Promise graduates continue to successfully manage funds, she said.
“We still have contact three, four, five years later and they’re still self-sufficient,” she said.
Rarely do clients fall back into homelessness, but when they do it is the families who did not complete the program.
“It takes a lot of effort to overcome being homeless and getting back on your feet,” she said. Being back in housing is only a start. “It still takes some time to recover from that financially, so that first year is very critical. We try to follow our families that first year so that they maintain managing their money,” she said.
“If you don’t follow up, your success rate drops. Our whole goal is to be a support but not enable people.”
Family Promise is as crucial to Longview’s well-being as it is to the families it helped, she said.
“I think it’s so important to help families get self-sufficient (because homelessness) diminishes our community if we can’t help the families who are hurting get back on their feet,” she said.
So as she continues to safeguard Longview families, she does all she can to safeguard herself and to encourage women who are faced with a breast cancer diagnosis to fight.
One reason she said she agreed to an interview for this article was “to tell other women they can overcome, and to get your mammograms because it saved my life twice. I had wonderful doctors in our community that helped me and to this day I still see one of those, Dr. Frase,” she said.
She said a book by Max Lucado, “You’ll Get Through This – Hope and Help for your Turbulent Times,” helped her know she wasn’t alone.
“It just gave me encouragement to keep going and to keep persevering,” Ramaly said. “Now that I’m on the other side, sometimes, when a challenge comes up in my own life, I think, ‘If I got through cancer, I can get through this,’” she said. “I think it’s the same thing as when you’re homeless. You can’t do it alone. When you have cancer you don’t do it alone and (as with homelessness) you also can overcome it.”