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Birmingham’s Angelyn Lyles Reflects on 3 Separate Cancer Battles, City History

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Angelyn Lyles has overcome three different cancers since 2005 and has relied on faith dating back to 1963 when she attended the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which was bombed and killed four little girls. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

When doctors told Angelyn Lyles she had cancer 18 years ago, she had no fear.

“I’m not going anywhere until it’s my time to go. I’m not leaving until it’s time to go. … Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally sane. It’s just that my faith is so strong,” said Lyles, a lifelong Christian and a minister since 1999.

She’s relied on her faith ever since, and it’s helped her endure.

Lyles has overcome three different cancers since 2005, having each time confronted the illness with the same sense of purpose, she said, found in her faith.

“I don’t say I am a cancer survivor. I am a cancer overcomer. … I use scripture to support that, [as well as] my still being alive because it started in 2005, and I’m still here,” she said.

Even before the cancer diagnosis, Lyles knew the importance of faith. She and her family were members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, but most of them missed church on Sept. 15, 1963, when the building was bombed, killing four little girls. Her brother DeWayne was standing on the balcony when the bomb exploded, and he may have carried post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into a military discharge during the Vietnam War, she said.

Lyles, who was 11 at the time, described the bombing as a “harrowing experience,” particularly for fellow students of the girls that were killed.

Looking back as Birmingham commemorates 60 years since the momentous Civil Rights marches, Lyles said, “We didn’t get counseling or anything. … We went to school the next day as if nothing happened. Can you imagine that? Nowadays, they wouldn’t do that. … That’s where faith comes in, though.”

Faith that has sustained her. After wrapping up treatment for anal cancer in 2005, Lyles not only recovered but also believed she had been made “whole,” she said. In 2009, Lyles discovered two lumps in her breasts and had a mastectomy. In 2016, cancer was once again found, this time on her lungs. Today, Lyles has stabilized and chalks her success up to the strength of her faith.

“When you know you have a purpose and something comes at you negatively, you can say, ‘This too shall pass.’ [Don’t] try to avoid the negativity, just go through because … God said he would never leave me nor forsake me,” Lyles said.

“Nothing Was Hidden”

Lyles, 70, was born in 1954 and spent her early childhood in the Smithfield neighborhood, where she lived doors away from legendary Civil Rights attorney Arthur Shores, whose home was bombed by white supremacists multiple times.

Lyles remembers growing up relatively sheltered during her time in Smithfield. Born to Nelda and Joe Nathan, Lyles grew up with two sisters, Deborah and Joycelyn, and two brothers, DeWayne and Marvin. Her father worked at US Steel, so the Lyles were kept from poverty and “didn’t suffer like a lot of Blacks suffered,” she recalled.

Still, Lyles remembers not being able to go to the fair, except on ‘colored days,’” she said.

Despite that, Lyles said being born in Birmingham “is one of the greatest blessings” because of the insight it gave her.

“I [would rather] have been born in Birmingham than to have been born in Ohio or someplace that denied there was racism,” she said. “We knew here. We knew [former Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Theophilus Eugene] ‘Bull’ Connor. … It was very open here. Nothing was hidden.”

After graduating from Arthur Harold Parker High School in Smithfield, she went off to the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa in 1970 to study political science, with the longer-term goal of becoming an attorney.

Lyles said, “I was so anti-everything, so I said [to myself], ‘You know what? You need to study political science, … study about the government, and know why you’re radical. Then you can do something about it to change it.’”

Lyles didn’t last long in Tuscaloosa, having had “a little too much fun,” she said. She returned home, where she transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and in 1976 earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in urban studies.

“When I left school, I said, ‘What am I gonna do? I remember when you were in fourth grade, you used to play school by yourself. You want to be a teacher.’ So, that passion came to me,” said Lyles, who taught kindergarten at the former Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Birmingham’s West End community from 1988 to 2011; she also returned to UAB, where she earned a master’s degree in early childhood education in 1995.

Before retiring in 2014, Lyles spent 24 of her 26 years as a teacher working with kindergarteners (she taught second grade for two years).

Angelyn Lyles has overcome three different cancers since 2005. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

Arrival of Cancer

When Lyles was first diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she had been dealing with severe bleeding from what she understood to be hemorrhoids, or swollen veins in the anus and lower rectum. A doctor at Ascension St. Vincent’s found a malignant tumor on Lyles’ anus, which led to chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the cancer for four to five weeks. Lyles’ chemotherapy lasted for two weeks, from Monday to Friday, then a port was implanted, opening a connection to a vein in her chest for further treatment.

During her first experience with cancer treatment, Lyles said she prayed and believed it worked.

“The radiation didn’t affect me,” she said. “My hair grew, and I didn’t lose any hair. I didn’t have any burns. My nails didn’t turn dark. Some of the side effects they mentioned, none of those happened to me—none, that I can recall.”

The same year her anal cancer was discovered, Lyles needed further investigation after a mammogram showed some kind of growth. She said to herself, “I’m trying to deal with this tumor right now and not think about that. I’ll deal [with that] when it’s time, when I have to.”

That time came in 2009, when Lyles self-discovered lumps in both of her breasts. Susan Winchester, M.D., a physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital, told Lyles she could have a lumpectomy, meaning the doctor could remove the cancerous tissue along with a small amount of surrounding tissue. But Lyles wanted to have a double mastectomy, removal of both breasts, and be done with the process.

“[Dr. Winchester] really thought I was in shock because why do both when you only have to have one minor surgery? … For me, I had no one to answer about my body but me. I don’t have a husband or anything like that, so I figured I could make that decision for myself, and I did,” Lyles said.

In 2016, another doctor found spots on Lyles’ lungs. A biopsy was conducted and malignant cells were found, so Lyles began treatment that year. Though the nodules on her lungs have stabilized, she continues to take exemestane, a hormone pill intended to help treat the effects of breast cancer.

Purpose

Angelyn Lyles has overcome three different cancers since 2005 and has relied on faith dating back to 1963 when she attended the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which was bombed and killed four little girls. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)

Through all of her medical challenges, Lyles said her sense of purpose has kept her strong.

“I know who I am and whose I am,” she said. “That means, I know I’m here for a purpose, and it’s not just to have fun like I thought years ago.”

While her primary purpose for many years was to teach kindergarten, she’s also found another calling.

In 1999, she became a minister. And though Lyles doesn’t regularly attend church, her focus is to minister to people wherever she is: “Right here, Walmart, it doesn’t matter. … If God says, ‘Pray with this person’ or ‘That person’s hurting,’ He’ll lead me to talk to somebody. … I just ask God to send somebody my way,” she said.

Thinking back to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in September 1963, Lyles said she couldn’t remember why she and her family missed church that day, but she knew there was a reason.

“Our assignment has not been completed,” she said.

Updated at 4:19 p.m. on 4/11/2023 to correct Lyles’ age at the time of the 1963 church bombing, clarify that it was unconfirmed if Lyles’ brother Dewayne had PTSD and clarify the nature of Lyles’ chemotherapy treatment in 2005.