Ben Howell crunched through a blanket of leaves as he made his way back home. After playing basketball at one of his regular courts, he was ready to eat. For a brief moment Ben was an ordinary teenager with ordinary problems, thinking about how well he played in the game, what homework he had to do, and what he was going to have for dinner. As he gripped the doorknob and stepped into his house, little did he know, Ben was also stepping out of his teenage comfort zone and into the adult world.
As soon as Ben closed the door, the smell of his Mom’s homemade pasta overwhelmed him, persuading his feet to follow his growling stomach into the kitchen. Ben’s mom, Sherry Howell, stood in the kitchen draped in a flour-stained apron. She switched between the stove, sink, and table with ease.
Sherry fixed a plate for Ben, dousing the noodles in an ample amount of fresh tomato sauce, just the way he likes it. She took one step toward her son and the unthinkable happened — a clump of brunette hair floated down into a sea of red sauce. When Sherry looked down at the plate, her eyes grew wide. She dropped the plate and let out a scream.
Sherry would never cry in front of her two boys, Ben and Kimbel. It wasn’t until later that night, after Sherry put her boys to bed, that she went into her room, closed the door, and collapsed to the ground, sobbing.
That was the last time she made pasta for Ben.
Sherry, 53, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010.
“I was protecting them because at that point I knew how bad it was,” Sherry said.
Up until that night, Ben was able to pretend like everything was normal. Facing the truth was too terrifying to accept, so he acted like nothing was wrong.
“I realized that this was something much bigger than I could’ve imagined,” Ben said. “This is going to affect much more of me, and take a lot more out of me, than I could’ve fathomed at that time.”
At the age of 12, Ben was dealt a burden that still lies heavily on his heart. He was sitting in his grandparents’ house across from his mother when she told him.
“Benji, I have cancer,” Sherry said.
“It didn’t really hit me in that moment when she told me,” Ben said. “It kind of hit later, it was a delayed reaction in a sense, but when it hit me, it hit me hard.”
According to the American Cancer Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to breast cancer, one in eight U.S. women will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. In 2015, 231,840 cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed, and of those women, 40,290 are expected to die.
Breast cancer took a physical and emotional toll on Sherry, forcing her to make sacrifices.
Before breast cancer, she would wake up, make the kids breakfast, take them to school, go to work, and come home. When she wasn’t working, she would make Ben dinner and take him to the gym to play basketball. Almost every weekend, Sherry would take Ben out to eat and see a movie.
Sherry used to wake up Ben the same way she said goodnight to him; with soft hands and a soothing voice. Now he wakes up the same way he falls asleep: alone. His mother, too weakened by cocktails of cancer medications, sleeps much of the day and isn’t able to see him out the door in the morning.
“The physical part is what’s so hard, because it physically deteriorated me,” Sherry said. “I would be active for a day and then in bed for three.”
Sherry can’t devote the same amount of attention and energy to Ben, simply because she just doesn’t have it to give. However that doesn’t stop her from trying. Even though she is not supposed to be doing chores like lifting laundry, vacuuming, or cleaning the dishes, she ignores her immense pain, and does them anyway. Sherry goes to bed early and sleeps in late because of the energy she puts in to do this housekeeping.
“She wants to be independent. She doesn’t like others having to sacrifice for her,” Ben said. “She still wants to be our mom.”
Sherry is extremely protective of her children. Not only did she not want them to have to make sacrifices for her, she didn’t want them to see their mother going through chemotherapy.
“Because of the chemo, I couldn’t even be around Benji and Kimbel, I didn’t want them to see me so sick,” Sherry said.
Sherry stayed with her best friend while going through the painful process of chemotherapy, and had Ben and Kimbel stay with their grandfather.
Much like Sherry, Ben struggles to find his own independence. He has drawn inspiration from Sherry’s fight to escape his troubled past.
“When mom got sick I started using drugs, sex, and alcohol as outlets for stress,” Ben said. “Dealing with the situation was very scary and I was putting on a bluff. I didn’t want to accept it so I turned my attention to these bad habits to keep my mind off the situation.”
Ben’s perspective on what is important in life changed when he found himself in a near-death situation.
Four light poles illuminated the basketball courts at Charlie Vettiner park on a late July night three years ago. A warm breeze welcomed Ben as he walked across the courts with two friends by his side, heading toward their usual spot, a picnic table that the court lights didn’t quite reach. As they sat down, one of Ben’s friends started packing marijuana into a joint.
Seconds later, a group of four teenagers arrived at the scene. The leader, cloaked in a black hooded sweatshirt, stood in front and offered a lighter. Both crews gathered around the table and started smoking — except for Ben, who had recently stopped using drugs for good.
A third group of people, who Ben didn’t recognize, approached the table, having been drawn by the scent of narcotics. The newest arrivals were invited to smoke but showed no interest in the offer. Instead they demanded that the marijuana be given to them. As arguing broke out between the two parties, Ben became wary of the escalating situation.
One of the drug dealers grabbed Ben’s friend by his shirt and threw him to the ground. Punches were being thrown by both sides as the fight spiraled out of control. Ben was frantically looking for his two friends when someone shoved him, and began to cock their fist. Ben quickly punched the attacker in the jaw, causing him to stumble backwards.
Ben scanned the area, trying to find the safest way out when he saw the hooded gang leader pull out a gun, aim, and fire.
“All I could think about in that moment was staying alive,” Ben said.
That night was a tipping point for Ben, because for the first time, he realized that drugs were not the most important thing in his life.
“This dude shot at a 16-year-old kid, and missed by an inch. He almost took a life over a couple grams of weed,” Ben said. “How is something so temporary and so minute in the grand scheme of your life worth dying for?”
Using drugs and alcohol to avoid dealing with his life pushed Ben so close to the edge, that he could no longer ignore his problems. Ben decided he needed to make a change.
“I was devoting my time and energy where there wasn’t any substance and that made me feel alright for a little bit,” Ben said. “But it wasn’t getting me anywhere and I needed something more in my life. I need something to make me feel whole and to make me feel satisfied with who I was as a person.”
The drive to becoming a better person led Ben to finding his faith. Religion didn’t have a place in his life before Sherry was diagnosed with cancer, and now it’s one of the most important parts of his life. Seeing his mother battle through cancer has helped Ben become a more generous and selfless person. Now he helps people anyway he can.
“He’s the type of person who will always give you the shirt off his back; he is very caring and giving,” Sherry said. “Ben gets more out of giving to others and helping those less fortunate than he does helping himself.”
Ben has replaced his old ways with church and family and has inspired others to do the same. He has made it his goal to help teenagers and children who have lives similar to his.
“I was able to turn my bad decisions into something good,” Ben said. “I am able to relate to people who are in the same boat as me and really help them as well.”
Ben has been able to mentor kids who have also dealt with adversity. One kid in particular, Gabriel Brian, an eighth grader at Farnsley Middle school, has meant a lot to Ben.
“I remember the first day I met him, he came into the youth group I was leading,” Ben said “He started talking a bunch of smack, and that’s when I decided he was going to be my special project, he’s grown on me ever since.”
Brian hasn’t had the easiest home life growing up. Being surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and violence gave him every opportunity to make the same choices Ben did.
“I probably would be smoking with friends and getting into trouble at school if it weren’t for Ben,” Brian said. “He has been through a lot of bad situations and instead of letting someone go through their problem alone, he goes through it with them.”
Ben sees a lot of himself in Brian, which is why their relationship is so strong.
“He is the person that I feel that I can give all of my trust to, and when I need help I know that Ben will have my back no matter what,” Brian said. “We both have that big brother-little brother love for each other.”
In addition to mentoring kids and being involved in youth group meetings, Ben is currently a youth pastor at his church and is planning on majoring in theology with an emphasis on youth ministry.
“I think being a pastor, a high school pastor specifically, is how I can help people who need it most,” Ben said. “I want to spend the rest of my life doing something that has an impact on the people around me, something that is everlasting and eternal, I want to have a lasting effect on the people I come in contact with.”
Finding his faith and helping others has changed the way Ben approaches his mother’s disease. Ben is aware that breast cancer has limited Sherry from doing all the typical mom responsibilities she loves doing.
“Mom wasn’t mom in the physical or emotional sense and I couldn’t change that. However I found my respect in the fight,” Ben said. “What I mean by that is my respect doesn’t lie in the fact that I’m not coming home to a freshly cooked meal anymore, or that I’m not going to be tucked in every night.”
Realizing the sacrifices Sherry makes for Ben and seeing the pain she deals with every day has completely changed Ben’s perspective on respect.
“My respect came from the reality that my momma was struggling and fighting for her life,” Ben said. “Everyday my mom was putting all of her effort in making sure that the time she spent with me mattered, because it could’ve been the last. My respect is found in the love, the struggle, and in the fight mom has for me.”
Words By: Will Kuhn