Zenell Ott is about to turn 90. She has survived three different types of cancer and a fall that broke her pelvis and tailbone. Yet she still walks two miles a day.
Well, she did up until it got cold and windy. That knocked her back to a mile — still not bad for someone missing part of her lungs.
“I’ve avoided the word ‘can’t’ all my life. I just feel like I can do things,” Ott said.
“I was walking two miles before it got cold. That’s my goal, to get back to two miles.”
That attitude is an inspiration to her younger friends.
“She doesn’t use her health as an excuse for not doing something,” said Diane Harrell of Osyka. “She’s the first one there, and she’s going to be there as soon as she can.”
Ott will turn 90 on Jan. 26, the same day she’ll get her COVID-19 vaccination.
“That will be my birthday present,” she said.
Just because she’s approaching 90 doesn’t mean she’s old-fashioned.
“She’s a huge Lynyrd Skynyrd fan,” Harrell said. “She made Lynn (Williams) take her out to the monument.”
When they got there, Nell recognized the title of the song “Gimme Three Steps” and recited the story behind the song, Williams said.
Cancer, round 1
Zenell Raborn Ott was born and raised in Osyka. “The church and school were the activities,” she said. “I was just blessed to have good Christian teachers.”
She went to Southwest Mississippi Community College on a basketball scholarship and got her bachelor’s degree at Southeastern Louisiana University.
She substitute-taught, and she and her late husband Wiltz would take kids swimming after Wiltz got off his mail route.
“He would run all over Osyka picking up kids to take to the Tangipahoa River,” said Diane Harrell’s husband Jamie. “It’s no telling how many they learned how to swim.”
“When they took them out, they made them behave,” added Lynn Williams.
Ott took graduate courses at University of Southern Mississippi — until cancer intervened.
“At 37 was when I had my first bout of cancer. Then it was just kind of tough with four children,” she said, referring to Richard, Wesley, Ginny and Ross. “The oldest was 14 and the youngest was 4.”
She was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy.
“Back then it was one out of three that survived. Look at the survival rate now,” she said.
“I’ve lived to see miraculous things in the medical field. God gave those people the knowledge. That’s a gift from God. I just don’t know how people survive who don’t have God in their lives, and family. I couldn’t make it without my family.”
Ott is a lifelong member and former Sunday school teacher at Osyka Baptist Church, where Wiltz — who died in 2001 at age 89 — was a deacon and treasurer. She has eight grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two on the way.
“I think one of the greatest joys of being old is my grandkids are adults,” she said. “It’s so great for us to sit here and have a conversation.”
Cancer, rounds 2 and 3
In the late 1980s, Ott came down with a sore throat. When Wiltz felt her neck, he noticed her lymph glands were enlarged. They went to Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, where she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Friends told her they didn’t know she smoked.
“I didn’t,” she said. “It was secondhand smoke. Back then all my friends smoked except me.”
She underwent surgery to remove the upper part of her lungs and was put on the cancer-fighting drug Tamoxifen, taken in pill form.
Diane Harrell recalls when Nell was about to undergo the surgery.
“Wiltz came in the bank and it was a couple days before her surgery,” said Harrell, a retired banker. “He teared up and he said, ‘If it could just be me that was having this surgery and not Nellie.’
“The next day Nell came in, not knowing Wiltz had been in. She teared up and said, ‘I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about Wiltz.’”
Nell was worried about Wiltz driving back and forth to New Orleans to tend to her.
“One was so worried about the other one, and I will never forget that. They had they lived their life like that,” Harrell said.
“They were so influential in Osyka. ... I respect her more than anybody I know.”
Nine years ago, Ott went to see a nurse practitioner because of abdominal trouble. The nurse sent her to the emergency room at Ochsner, where she was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
“I told them I am 80 years old, my first trip to an emergency room,” she said.
She underwent surgery within a week. As usual, she looked on the bright side.
“The oncologist said usually it’s breast to lung to brain,” she said.
She underwent several rounds of radiation, which were excruciating at first. But they worked. Two weeks ago her oncologist told her she’s cancer-free and doesn’t need to come back.
Ten months ago Ott was getting ready to hand the Waste Management garbage collectors some money to buy themselves pizza for lunch when she tripped and fell in her living room.
“Wes (her son) had his radio on and didn’t hear my phone, so I called Linda Williams. She’s my go-to. She got help,” Ott said.
“We went to McComb. I couldn’t ask for better treatment at that hospital (Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center). We are blessed to have them.”
She learned she had broken her pelvis and tailbone. She spent four weeks at Camellia Estates undergoing physical therapy.
“Those therapists were wonderful,” she said. “The sitting was the thing. That hurt worse than anything.
“You don’t know how thankful and how blessed I have been. God got my attention.”
As she sees it, she had been overly prideful about her ability to walk without tripping. The fall was her comeuppance.
But she’s back on the move, walking and watching the birds and wildlife through the window of her den.
“In Osyka, to everybody I’m Aunt Nell or Mama Ott,” Ott said. “It’s kind of difficult to explain to people how we’re related.”