Eighteen-year-old Lofton Wheeles was by his mother’s side as cancer survivors, cancer patient care-givers, friends and family enjoyed the music of The Drive Time Band during the HOPE concert on the Covington Square, Sept. 27.
It was fitting he was there, because after all he, in part, is the reason his mother was there.
When Lofton was 10 months old, his mother Velinda Wheeles, wasn’t just watching the toddler learn to walk, raising a fourth grader and an eighth grader and being a part of the community in Opelika, Alabama. She was also entering into the biggest battle of her life.
One day in July of 1998, Velinda discovered a lump in her breast before heading out to help with a mother’s day out program at her church. She then spent four hours watching over 3-year-olds before returning home and realizing it was still there.
“I thought it would go away,” Velinda said. “I was kind of in denial.”
After she realized the lump wasn’t going away, she went to the doctor, The very next week after the initial visit, Velinda was scheduled for a mammogram and ultrasound. She returned to her doctor, who told her he didn’t like anything about what he had seen and asked if she would like to meet her surgeon.
Ten days after she found the lump, Velinda was under the knife having the cancer removed.
“They told me it was a very aggressive moving cancer,” Velinda said. “They told me if I had waited — and most moms, who are busy with a 10-month-old and kids in school sometimes have to — and took my time, I probably wouldn’t still be here.”
Velinda didn’t wait, she went through with the mastectomy, underwent chemotherapy and radiation and continued to look after her children.
After the surgery, she even had a portrait made with her and her three kids all dressed in white. That portrait went up in her living room, above the couch where she lied down and rested, not in a back room but among the activity of a young five-person family.
“I continued on, and never stopped. I didn’t miss a lick,” Velinda said. “When you have kids, younger ones especially, you have to continue to go.”
Friends and family supported her by bringing her children back and forth to dance and gymnastics, brining over a meal or two, and purchasing diapers for Lofton. Upon visiting, they kept asking why. She doesn’t have a family history of breast cancer, so why did she get it?
That was there question, it wasn’t Velinda’s.
“I never questioned why did this happen to me,” Velinda said. “I just thought why not me, why couldn’t it happen to me. It just happens. I think He chose me because I’m not a shy person, I will talk to a brick wall, and sharing the story was never an issue with me.”
That is evident to anyone working who sees Velinda running around during downtown events, taking pictures, posting updates, meeting with visitors and store owners and setting up any of the dozens of events she oversees in downtown Covington as Main Street Director.
When she started as Main Street Director in Opelika, Alabama she reached out to the local cancer center at East Alabama Medical Center and asked what they did for Breast Cancer Awareness month. When they said nothing, she came up with a plan to start a “Think Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Walk.”
To sell her idea, she gathered business leaders and community members in a room and had a picture with a white sheet covering it in the front of the room. She told the attendees why they needed to support the cause of breast cancer awareness. She then pulled the sheet off the picture and revealed the portrait she had made with her and her three children.
“I said I just want you to know this is the face of cancer.”
Ten years later, the event that started with 150 people, now is a main cog for Opelika’s cancer awareness foundation that helps pay for mammograms for people in need.
“It is a really cool feeling to think that I used this opportunity for good,” Velinda said. “It just happens because of me wanting to give back something to people that gave so much to me.”
Velinda has the same attitude of giving back as the Main Street Director of Covington, continuing to help promote breast cancer awareness. When she first arrived, she received a phone call about permitting procedures for the HOPE concert.
“I said I want to be a part of this,” Velinda said. “I just really do have that need, once something has been done for you, you have that desire to give back and help somebody else.”
Maybe that’s why Lofton was in Covington a week ago, helping and supporting his mother as she attended the HOPE concert and made sure everyone knew of the passionate things that Covington does, he was giving back to his mother.
Seventeen years ago she sat on her couch in Opelika looking up at the portrait of him at 10 months old, with his two siblings and said “That’s what I fight for.”