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'It's a punch to the gut' | Mother with stage four breast cancer finds inspiration through daughter with disabilities

Noelle Walker doesn't let her metastatic stage four breast cancer diagnosis define her. She is inspired by her daughter, who has debilitating diagnoses of her own.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A Knoxville mother with stage four metastatic breast cancer doesn't let her diagnosis define her. Being a fighter is a skill she learned from her daughter.

To Noelle Walker, art is found in the fight. As she watches her 16-year-old daughter Layla Walker use a special computer to create pictures with her eyes, she's reminded of her blessings.

 "I feel like it takes courage to have hope," Noelle said.

She's a wife, daughter, sister, mother and friend. She maintains her hope at home and work while wearing many hats.

"I've got an important job, and her name is Layla," Noelle said. "Layla was adopted, so we took her home from the hospital when she was just not even a whole day old yet."

She's seen that warrior spirit in Layla from day one. It wasn't very long after she and her husband got Layla home, they noticed something wasn't right.

"I thought she was blind," Noelle said. "We found out that Layla has got spastic quadriplegic, cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder, and she's nonverbal."

Layla is bound to a wheelchair. Noelle describes her teenage daughter as sassy, sweet, smart and funny.

"She's an amazing human being and I'm so happy that I'm her mother," Noelle said.

Little did Noelle know, Layla's fight would inspire her own. She was told she had cancer on Aug. 1, 2013. They found it in her breast. It was stage three, aggressive ductal carcinoma.

Credit: WBIR

Through treatments and surgeries, she thought she beat it. But in February 2021, life threw another punch.

Her battle got bigger after she started having trouble breathing. She thought it was asthma, but when her inhaler wasn't working the way she hoped she went to the doctor.

"It's a punch to the gut," Noelle said. "They found it in my brain, in my bones in my lungs and in my liver."

The official diagnosis came in: stage four metastatic breast cancer. There's no cure for it, only treatment.

She's already had gamma knife surgery to remove cancer in her brain, but she will be on treatment for the rest of her life. 

It's a tough pill to swallow for Noelle, but she refuses to let the diagnosis define her.

“I refuse to dwell on the fact that I've got metastatic breast cancer, that's just not who I am," Noelle said. "It's part of me, it's not who I am.”

The tumors and their placement took away her ability to lift Layla in and out of bed.

Credit: WBIR

Thanks to fundraising efforts and a supportive community, the Walker family was able to get a special lift installed in Layla's room to ease some of the struggles.

"I'm no longer the caregiver. I'm somebody who also has to be taken care of, and that's not easy," Noelle said. "I'm the one who gives the care, not the other way around. That's hard."

She joins forces with a community of breast cancer fighters on Facebook, called Breast Connect.

"I get so much support from people on Breast Connect," Noelle said. "We're all traveling different roads, but we're all kind of on the same overall journey and we get so much support from each other."

She wears two necklaces around her neck: a breast cancer ribbon given to her by her stepdaughter and her grandmother's ring. Her grandmother died of metastatic breast cancer at 56 years old, so she keeps her close to her heart.

Credit: WBIR

She knows she will never be alone. While she can't help but think the very human thought of, "why me?" She never lets her feelings or mood get in the way of trying each day.

She says she hopes that's a lesson Layla can learn from her too — always staying focused on the art of the fight, Noelle will never give up.

"You better bet I'm gonna fight to my last breath," Noelle said.

During breast cancer awareness month, WBIR is highlighting stories of education and hope in partnership with Breast Connect.

If you would like to get involved with the nonprofit and online community, you can visit breastconnect.org, or join the Facebook group.

If you are interested in helping or sponsoring the organization in its initiatives, please call President Nina Reineri at 865-310-1505.