Breast cancer survivor Carol Stevens says she’s going to enjoy every minute of her upcoming birthday party. “I feel extremely excited getting ready to celebrate my 90th birthday,” said Stevens. “No way under God’s green earth I thought I would live this long. I have an active, busy, healthy, wonderful life, and a wonderful family.”
Stevens was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1957 when she was 33 years old. She and her oldest daughter had traveled from their home in Pennsylvania to visit a specialist in New York City because of concerns that her daughter had a brain tumor. While at the hospital, Stevens arranged to have herself examined as well, because she’d found a lump in her breast. Test results showed that Stevens’ daughter did not have a tumor, but Stevens did.
In 1957, breast cancer treatment was much different than it is today. The standard surgical treatment was a radical mastectomy, which is removal of the entire breast, lymph nodes, and some muscles of the chest wall under the breast. Today, this type of surgery is rarely needed to treat breast cancer. Instead women with breast cancer can choose among less drastic kinds of surgery. The surgeon also removed Stevens’ ovaries as part of her breast cancer treatment. This is rarely done today, and instead other forms of hormone therapy, as well as additional treatments like radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy are common. What’s more, in Stevens’ day, women often underwent the surgery for a breast lump without knowing in advance whether they’d be having their breast removed or not.
“You had to go in with that understanding – if it was cancer – so you had no warning,” said Stevens. “Six hours later I came out of surgery with no breast. It was cancer.”
Stevens says her attitude about the outcome of her trip to New York was strangely positive. A mother of 4, she’d learned her daughter didn’t have a brain tumor, and now would no longer have to worry about becoming pregnant again. In addition, Stevens’ doctor prescribed a “treatment” that Stevens wholeheartedly embraced. “I was told when I got home not to get tired,” said Stevens. “Every 2 weeks, hire a babysitter and go out to dinner with my husband. And put up my feet for 10 minutes every day.” Living life, loving life.
Although doctors gave Stevens just 5 years to live, once she got home from the hospital she says she didn’t really dwell on it. After all, she had 4 children to take care of, the youngest just a baby and the oldest a teenager. “You get up every morning and count your blessings,” said Stevens. “I have something on my computer that says there is a reason God limits our days: to make each one precious. And that’s what I do.”
Once her children were older, Stevens went back to school and earned her master’s degree in education. She became a remedial reading specialist and eventually a dynamic administrator in the school system, pushing hard for reading programs across the district. She retired at age 69, and then consulted until age 72.
Though she retired, she didn’t slow down. One of her lifelong dreams was to ride an elephant in Africa. At age 83, after her husband passed away, Stevens began traveling the world with her youngest daughter, beginning with that trip to Africa and a ride on an elephant named Danny. Next November, Stevens and her daughter are headed to the Amazon. “If you don’t have any belief in life, this makes you have it because I have been so lucky and so healthy,” said Stevens. “Being 90 to me is almost unbelievable. I’m still actively working and driving and doing everything.”
Her cancer journey began with abdominal pains and nausea in the summer of 2012. She had been diagnosed with a cyst on her ovary, and assumed that was the cause of her symptoms. In October, she was treated with surgery. A week later, her doctor told her that biopsies taken during the surgery tested positive for ovarian cancer.
“I never once shed a tear,” says Mair. “I knew God would take care of me. He brought me through everything else, and I knew he would bring me through this too.” Mair’s doctor sent her to another surgeon for more surgery. He would take additional biopsies to find out whether all the cancer had been removed, and whether it had spread. What he found out was that Mair’s cancer had actually originated in her colon. Further tests showed it had spread to her liver and lymph nodes.
Now that the doctors knew what they were dealing with, they prescribed a treatment of chemotherapy and more surgery. Mair began rallying her support team. She moved in with her sister and enlisted a couple of good friends to help take her to chemo appointments in Baltimore, about a 2 ½ hour drive. She looked up information about her cancer type on the American Cancer Society website, which helped her understand more about her treatment. Through it all, she continued to work, continued to stay positive, and continued to rely on her faith.
Mair said side effects during her first few months of chemo did not interfere with her determination to fight the cancer. Nerve damage caused extreme sensitivity to cold and caused cramping in her legs that made walking difficult. But she says she was determined to keep fighting and take control over the cancer.
These days, Mair continues to have chemo treatments, but says she feels OK. A follow-up test found some cancer in her pelvic area, and she may need radiation. But she continues to believe that through her faith in God, her positive attitude, and her medical care, she’s going to triumph over cancer in the end. “The experience has changed me,” said Mair. “It makes me look at life differently. Little things that used to make me mad don’t bother me anymore. I appreciate life now.”
To encourage others facing a cancer diagnosis, Mair has started her own support group for patients and caregivers. So far, 18 people have signed up for her first meeting at a local library. She hopes to teach the group some of the lessons she’s learned from her ordeal.
“Surround yourself with a good support system if you can,” says Mair. “Don’t give up – keep living life.”
Four-time lymphoma survivor Scott Baker has spent 2 years out of work and more than 100 days in the hospital, so he’s had a lot of time to think. He’s thought about how he wanted to not just endure treatment, but also to survive. He’s thought about how he wanted to change and become a better person, let go of his anger, and be nicer to people.
“My wife says I’m a different person now, and boy am I glad to hear that,” said Baker. “I don’t get angry. I don’t have any sense of entitlement. I don’t think anyone owes me anything. If someone cuts me off while driving, I just let them go ahead. If my son puts a hole in the wall, I stay calm. In the past, I was a yeller. I was wound up too tight.”Cancer a ‘wake-up call’
Baker was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999 at the age of 29. It’s a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system. He’d gone to the doctor because of pain that got worse and didn’t go away. Eventually, a CT scan found a tumor. The doctor told Baker the cancer was treatable, and that he’d be OK. “I didn’t panic at all; I trusted him,” said Baker, now 44. “I really felt like immediately God tapped me on the shoulder to give me a wake-up call. I knew I needed to straighten up a little bit. I thought, ‘I am going to learn from this.’”
Baker had chemotherapy and radiation, and wound up spending a lot of time with other people in clinics along the way. He found he had tremendous empathy for the other patients, many of whom seemed to be having a harder time than he was. “I didn’t mind that I was going through it,” said Baker. “But I didn’t like seeing other people going through it.”
Baker recovered and got back on his feet. He got married and he and his wife had a son, and then another son. Then in 2006, his cancer came back. The treatment was harsher this time – more aggressive chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and a stem cell transplant. Baker continued to work at his job as a bridge engineer, but felt tired and nauseated much of the time. He developed a greater appreciation for his wife, who took on most of the responsibility for their young boys, while also caring for Baker and working full time. “Cancer really gave me perspective, patience, and gratitude,” said Baker. “Being able to see someone else’s perspective means your life gets a lot better.”
In 2012, Baker began experiencing stroke-like symptoms. He was diagnosed with primary central nervous system lymphoma, a type of lymphoma that involves the brain. He got the cancer under control with chemotherapy and immunotherapy, but it came back. He had even more chemotherapy and immunotherapy, and a second stem cell transplant.
While recovering, Baker thought for the first time that he might die, and shared his fears with a nurse. She insisted that he was too strong to die. “That was all I needed to hear because she believed it,” said Baker. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get through this.’ And it got way worse, but I could do it because of her.” It was then, Baker said, that he realized he needed other people to survive. In the hospital, he needed medical care to live, but – he realized – he’s also needed people his whole life.
Baker spent the rest of his recovery reaching out to everyone he met. “I changed my life one person at a time,” said Baker. “I began by being nice to everyone. I started in the hospital. With every nurse that came in, I was nice and I was grateful. It kind of snowballed. When you respond to the world in a grateful way, people respond to you.”
During his second stem cell transplant, Baker stayed at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge in New York City and became close with other patients and caregivers there. He found that even though people come from all different walks of life, at the Hope Lodge they were all in the same boat. They all want the same thing, he said – to recover and get back home. Baker said the Hope Lodge is a beautiful facility, but it’s the people who really make it special.
When he was well enough to return home, Baker got online and began searching for other survivors of his cancer type. He found a 28-year survivor, and then a 10-year survivor, who started an online support group called Braintrust - which Baker promptly joined. He found the American Cancer Society Stories of Hope, which provide inspiration through the stories of people whose lives have been touched by cancer. He also found and joined WhatNext, an online support network developed with the participation of the American Cancer Society that matches users with peers and resources.
"I've become the man I always wanted to be." Today, Baker is back at work. In his spare time, he coaches youth baseball for his two boys and mentors a cancer support group at his local YMCA. He says he is enjoying life and is happier than he’s ever been. “I’ve become the man I’ve always wanted to become,” said Baker. “I’m treating my wife and boys differently. I decided if I’m going to survive and find inner peace, the most important thing I’m ever going to do is be the best husband and father I can be. I have to be the man to my wife that I want her to be the woman to me. I have to treat her the way I want her to treat me. I try really hard never to yell anymore or get angry. I never achieved my goal by responding to something with anger.”
“Life is better now because I don’t judge anyone,” said Baker. “I don’t walk around angry and mad. I now see that other people are angry at nothing. They’re angry at everyone else for their own unhappiness. That’s a cool thing to understand and realize. I wouldn’t have understood that without the cancer.”
When Diane Legg, an active mom of 3 in her early 40s, felt a pain in her back after picking up her 1-year-old-son, she went to her doctor expecting to hear that she had pulled a muscle. When her doctor ordered a CT scan to rule out a pulmonary embolism, the results showed something she definitely wasn’t expecting: suspicious spots on her lungs. “Everyone was saying that they doubted it was malignant,” says Legg. “I just didn’t think I had any risk factors. But in the back of my head, I thought: ‘Is this possible?’”
Just a few months earlier, Legg’s friend Susan had been diagnosed with lung cancer. When tests came back showing that the spots in Legg’s lungs were stage I non-small cell lung cancer, Legg understood that she, like her friend, would be facing the disease.
Legg began treatment, undergoing a lobectomy that removed the upper part of her left lung as well as chemotherapy. She was undergoing her second round of chemo when she received news that Susan, who had been diagnosed only 9 months earlier, had lost her life to the disease. “When Susan died, I had a ‘why me?’ moment – or rather a ‘why not me?’ moment,” says Legg. “I kept asking myself, why did they find my cancer early and not hers? Why am I here and she’s not?” Legg decided she would honor Susan’s memory by doing her best to increase awareness about lung cancer and to raise funds to help prevent and find better treatments for the disease.
Early on in her cancer journey, Legg had taken part in her local Relay For Life® event in Amesbury, Massachusetts. “It was a good way to feel empowered, like I was ‘doing something,’” says Legg. Since then, she has fought back against lung cancer by becoming a vocal advocate for lung cancer awareness, starting a vigil called “Shine a Light on Lung Cancer” in Boston, and becoming a key leader for the New England region of a nationwide lung cancer non-profit as well as a leader for an organization she founded herself.
She has spoken out in favor of better awareness and funding in front of local legislators in Massachusetts and has traveled to Washington, D.C., to lend her energy to the fight against lung cancer at the national level. “I felt that as long as I had this voice, I would not let Sue’s voice go unheard,” she says. “I carry the voices of so many people with me.”
Even as she has devoted her time to fighting against lung cancer on behalf of others, Legg has continued her own personal battle against the disease. Two years after her original diagnosis, her doctors found the cancer was now in both of her lungs. Although her cancer is still present and more treatment may come in the future, Legg is now a 9-year lung cancer survivor – and she sees reasons to be hopeful. “There have been a lot of changes since I was first diagnosed. There are new screening protocols, there are new developments, and there are a lot of great people out there working in this field,” Legg says.
To others facing lung cancer today, she says this: “Don’t lose hope. Even though there’s not a cure, treatments have come a long way.”
Survivor Mentors Other Men with Prostate Cancer
Frank Ready, a 15-year survivor of prostate cancer, says the more he can meet and help others, the better he feels. Ready volunteers with the American Cancer Society to mentor other men who are newly diagnosed with prostate cancer. He has spoken with such men at health fairs, corporate meetings, and Relay For Life events, the American Cancer Society’s signature fundraising walks.
Ready’s own cancer story began in 1998 at age 58 when his blood pressure suddenly spiked. To check things out, he went to his doctor for a physical, which included a digital rectal exam. The doctor felt a mass and referred Ready to a urologist. After another exam, a second opinion, and tests that confirmed he had cancer, Ready opted for radiation and hormone therapy. Through it all he continued to work and exercise.
Though Ready was always athletic, he’d really begun taking charge of his health at age 35, when he quit smoking cold turkey and began running. “I just smoked for a very long time and then I had an epiphany,” said Ready. Ready’s father, mother, and 2 of his brothers were all lifelong smokers and died young. “I was a 3-pack-a-day man,” said Ready. “When I spoke to people, they said, ‘I don’t know what you look like without a cigarette in your face.’” Ready said he came to the realization that when you don’t take care of yourself, everything ends tragically.
To fill the void created by quitting, Ready started running. At first he could run for only 150 yards before being overtaken by a coughing fit. Then he worked his way up to a mile, then 3 miles, then 10k races, then half-marathons, and then marathons. These days, Ready considers his prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment just “a bump in the road” and has switched from running to cycling after a back problem. He cycles 20 miles a day. And he plans to continue his work talking with men who have questions about prostate cancer. As always, Ready is likely to be found at a corporate health fair behind a sign that says, “Talk to a Cancer Survivor,” giving out brochures, and answering questions.
The Bryants have always been a close family, but that closeness was never so evident as when 25-year-old Jerald was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Having just graduated from Rowan University in New Jersey, Jerald was living at home when he became sick. So his parents were close by and able to help when he most needed them.
Jerald said, “No matter how old we get, no one can replace their mother and father. We’ll always have that closeness because none of us will ever forget this experience. I’m grateful even in a time of adversity because my family became even closer.”‘I didn’t know what was going on’. In 2009 after he graduated from college with a degree in finance, Jerald knew something was wrong, but he didn’t know what. His symptoms included lower back pain, profuse sweating, and unexplained weight loss. In just a few months, he’d dropped about 40 to 50 lbs. His family doctor said it was probably the flu. But one day, Jerald suddenly became so dizzy he could barely walk. He began to throw up blood and his mother, Darlene, rushed him to the emergency room.
At the hospital, Jerald and Darlene were joined by Jerald’s father, sister, and uncle. He underwent a series of tests. They revealed tumors in Jerald’s abdomen that had grown into his kidney, liver, and lower intestine, causing the bleeding. A nurse told Darlene that Jerald had stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Darlene was shocked. Her son was young and healthy, and worked out regularly at a gym. She said, “How do you go from a young man who’s had nothing more than a cold to stage IV lymphoma?” ‘God and my family were right there with me’ Jerald began chemotherapy and his tumors shrank. But only a few months into his treatment, the cancer returned. He was hospitalized for 3 weeks and his parents stayed with him the entire time, sleeping in chairs in his room and washing up in a bathroom down the hall. Jerald said, “It was one of the scariest moments of my life, but I was so glad to have God and my family right there with me through it all.”
His treatment included more chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and radiation. ‘Cancer didn’t win’ Three years after the trip to the emergency room, Jerald’s doctor said he could detect no signs of lymphoma. Jerald continues to have regular scans and routine checkups. After his treatment, Jerald went back to school and is now working on his MBA. He said, “Going back to school was my way of telling cancer it didn’t win. It didn’t rob me; there was a purpose.”
Pancreatic cancer survivor Russ Carlson says he thoroughly enjoys life, even though a lot has changed. In 2000, Carlson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had a 2% chance of living for just 3 more years. That was 13 years ago. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me why I survived,” said Carlson. “I’m a strong believer in a positive attitude. I’m a persistent and determined individual. When the doctor told me my prognosis, I said, ‘Well, you just count me in on that number because someone’s got to be in there.’”
Carlson initially went to the doctor because of a pain under his left ribcage that spread around to his back and just wouldn’t go away. A CT scan revealed a tumor pressing on his spleen. Surgeons removed Carlson’s spleen, part of his pancreas and left kidney, and 5 lymph nodes. He underwent 5 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation that left him sick and weak. Then, when it finally was over, Carlson’s doctor said he needed another round of chemo. Carlson said he just couldn’t go through it again. But after thinking it over for a couple of weeks, he finally agreed.
Fortunately, the second round was less punishing. “There were many times I wanted to quit with chemo, but I didn’t give up,” said Carlson. “I made a plan when I got home from the hospital to get out of the house every day. I tell people, ‘Don’t sit at home, because you’ll talk yourself into depression. Surround yourself with people.’”
These days, Carlson has yearly scans to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back. He takes 41 pills a day, every day, for many of the long-term side effects resulting from his treatment, including neuropathy (nerve damage) and diabetes. And he devotes much of his spare time to helping other people newly diagnosed with cancer. About a year ago, Carlson found WhatNext, an online support network developed with the participation of the American Cancer Society that matches users with peers and resources. Carlson receives 2 or more emails a day through the site, from caregivers and patients with newly diagnosed pancreatic cancer. They ask him questions about how he dealt with side effects from treatment and participate in discussions with him on the site.
“If I can help just one person, it makes it all worthwhile,” said Carlson, “I became a survivor the day I had surgery, meaning I had another day to live. But you have to live it with a purpose, so I try to go out there and help as many people as I can.“ In addition, Carlson volunteers at his local Gilda’s Club in New Jersey, which provides support for people diagnosed with cancer and their families. Carlson and his family also participate in fundraising walks and golf tournaments in their local communities.
“My advice for people is to try to embrace their new normal life,” said Carlson.” You’re not going to go back to the way your life was. Some things are definitely going to change. If you accept that, you’ll be so much more comfortable. I thoroughly enjoy my life.”
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