For Kelli Morrow Ward, 2019 was a year where all of her dreams were coming true.
The Baldwin County native and 2010 Baldwin High School graduate was in a job that she loved, teaching at Miller Fine Arts Magnet Middle School in Bibb County. She was happily married and midyear, she became a mother when she and her husband Jamoski welcomed their son Jamison into the world.
Just a few short weeks later, she made a discovery that would ultimately change the course of her life.
“My son was about six weeks old, and I was getting myself transitioning back to work off of maternity leave and I felt this small spot,” said Ward.
Ward discovered what felt like a small knot in her left breast. She called her mother, a registered nurse, who advised her that if it felt painful, she should have it checked out, but that it could also just be due to lactation. With the stresses of motherhood and getting ready to go back to teaching, Ward did not think much of the spot at the time.
“I just put myself on the back burner, trying to make sure that I was 100% as a mom, trying to make sure that I was 100% as a wife and 100% at my job,” said Ward. “We have a habit as women of just doing that, not even knowing that we’re doing it.”
When the spot was still there a few months later, she decided it was time to have it checked. When a radiologist could not determine the nature of the spot, Ward was referred to a breast surgeon. A biopsy was performed, and on June 29, 2020, Ward got the news that stops so many women in their tracks: She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I started crying on the phone with him,” said Ward of that conversation with the doctor.
Ward’s doctor gave her the good news that the cancer was caught early, a Stage 0 non-invasive cancer that would not need chemotherapy or radiation. They did decide, however, to move forward with plans for a bilateral mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction.
During the weeks between her diagnosis and her surgery, Ward was left reeling with the reality of breast cancer at the age of only 28.
“We think that it’s just menopausal or post-menopausal ages, but it’s not. It can affect anybody,” said Ward.
Ward took to journaling about her experiences, and it was then that she decided to launch a clothing line to inspire women going through some of the same struggles. She felt inspiring others was her purpose, and that anyone who goes through a difficult time and comes out on a top is a survivor. The name of her line was born: Survivor on Purpose.
“That was my purpose — to survive by whatever had to be done,” said Ward.
Ward researched fonts online to develop a logo and then launched a line of T-shirts to inspire those affected by breast cancer to find their strength. With marketing help from her friend Jaleah Holsey, Ward developed a website for her products as well as Facebook and Instagram accounts. Shirts can be purchased from the website, and Ward plans to soon add face masks and tumblers to her product line.
Proceeds from Survivor on Purpose will initially go to the Relay for Life program at Miller Fine Arts Magnet, allowing Ward to support her school and cancer research simultaneously. She plans to donate proceeds to other organizations in the future as the brand grows.
Ward’s bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction took place on Aug. 5. While she admits it was difficult not being able to rock her son, now 14 months old, to sleep during the weeks she had her drains in, she said she is happy to be on the other side of the most difficult part of her journey. Since the cancer had progressed to Stage 1A by the time of the surgery, she is on medication to keep the cancer cells suppressed and prevent further spread. She still has some final procedures coming up, but overall, she is happy to be back at work teaching and able to move forward with her life, post-cancer. She hopes Survivor on Purpose inspires other women.
“We all know someone that has gone through breast cancer,” said Ward.
Her best advice to other women is to make their health a priority no matter how busy life gets.
“Take that time out to go to the doctor and see what’s going on and get checked,” said Ward. “Sometimes we say, ‘Well, that can wait,’ or, ‘That’s nothing,’ but it might be something serious. We just have to really take time out for ourselves and make sure that our health is 100%.”
Those interested in supporting Ward’s endeavors can purchase items at www.survivoronpurpose.com. You can also find updates by searching for Survivor on Purpose on both Facebook and Instagram.