I AM A CANCER SURVIVOR
In honor of National Cancer Survivors Day, five patients tell their story of diagnosis, survival and what being a survivor means to them
(June 3, 2011) Pinellas Park, Fla. — “I was puzzled and perplexed,” says Larry Bowman. “I had no idea of what my next step should be.”
“I was absolutely shocked,” says Sue Hollen. “I never would have seen that coming.”
“Speechless,” says Suzanne Colgan. “I couldn’t talk. When they told me, I basically went mute.”
“I thought, ‘Is this really happening?” says Norman Counts. “But then I just realized that I had to accept it and move forward.”
“It was like the air came out of a balloon,” says Joan Barry. “Just deflated.”
All of these people share a common bond - one shared by approximately 11 million people across the country: They have battled the same enemy and survived. Each has a different story to tell, a different diagnosis to face, a different experience ahead of them. And while some are still battling the disease, they are all cancer survivors.
In honor of National Cancer Survivors Day, here are the stories of five patients who have lived with this disease and what they say being a cancer survivor means to them.
When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, 72-year-old Bowman says he was bewildered. “It definitely got my attention,” he says. “I tossed and turned at night, trying to figure out what my next move should be. Every option has a potential downside, so I knew it was a big decision.”
After a lot of reading, research, several consultations and a biopsy, it was determined that radiation would be Bowman’s best chance at beating his cancer. A friend of Bowman’s recommended he visit WellSpring Oncology in Pinellas Park. “My friend said that he was very satisfied with the treatment and service he received at WellSpring, so I made an appointment to speak with them,” Bowman says. “They told me about their TomoTherapy treatment system and I signed up immediately!”
Eight weeks after his biopsy, Bowman was able to start treatment. He underwent 42 treatment sessions with little side effects and says he’s doing well. His last tests came back even better than his doctor expected.
“It may take a year and a half to be completely in the clear,” he says. “But I’m well on my way.”
Sue Hollen would never have expected her skin cancer diagnosis. She had been suffering from a severely itchy eyelid for a while, but like many of us would, thought nothing of it. In fact, her diagnosis came almost by chance.
“I was at the doctor with my husband who was having some cancerous spots taken off his nose,” she says, “and his doctor noticed me rubbing my eye. He looked at me and said ‘You’re scratching that an awful lot. Do you mind if I look at it?’”
Turns out, the doctor’s instincts were right. After looking at her eye, he proceeded with three separate biopsies. It was the third - and deepest - biopsy that came back cancerous. “I was absolutely amazed,” she says. “Even as a registered nurse, I never would have thought an itchy eyelid meant cancer!”
Hollen was referred to WellSpring Oncology to undergo radiation therapy. She went through four weeks and two days of treatment for a total of 26 sessions at WellSpring and says it was such a pleasant experience. “They are all so friendly and professional,” she says. “They truly become your friends.”
On catching and treating her cancer early, Hollen says it’s been an interesting journey. “I didn’t even originally go to the doctor for me. But thank God we went!”
Though having been a smoker at one point in her life, 71-year-old St. Petersburg resident Suzanne Colgan kicked the habit in 1992, long before her cancer diagnosis. So when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, Colgan says she was speechless. “I was told I had a baseball-sized tumor on the top of my right lung. That will take the words out of you.”
With her daughter and husband by her side, and her son calling her everyday from New York, Colgan was able to find her voice again. “I was so thankful to have my daughter with me,” she says. “She attended all my doctor appointments and spoke for me when I couldn’t. My husband would speak to my friends when I just couldn’t bear to tell my story again.”
After having two-thirds of her right lung surgically removed, undergoing chemotherapy wasn’t a welcoming thought. However, Colgan says her oncologist, Frank Franzese, M.D., and the staff at WellSpring Oncology made treatment a very pleasant process. “Treatment at WellSpring was great,” she says. “I loved it over there. They made me feel like I was truly special.”
Colgan still has a journey with treatment ahead of her, but says that she feels just fine. “I have to say that despite all of this, I feel healthy.”
A few months after a diagnosis of tongue cancer, Norman Counts was told that his tonsils didn’t look quite right, either. After undergoing a tonsillectomy to have them removed, his throat cancer diagnosis soon followed. It was at this point that the 76-year-old St. Petersburg resident began his radiation treatment.
“My ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor) recommended I visit WellSpring for my radiation,” says Counts. “I’m so glad I went. Everyone there was just fantastic. I’d recommend them with no hesitation.”
On November 23, 2010, just six weeks after beginning his cancer treatment, Counts was finished with radiation. And it just so happened to be on his wife’s birthday. “It was the best birthday gift I could have given her,” he says.
Since completing treatment, Counts says his tests are coming back clear and that he’s doing really well. “I saw Dr. Miller at WellSpring in March and he told me I don’t have to come back for a year. I’m so fortunate that we caught it so early, as I think that’s what’s made the difference. I don’t feel as though I ever even had cancer.”
On his wrist, however, is a yellow wrist band. It says “Cancer Survivor.”
“My wife bought one for both of us,” he says. “Because I am a cancer survivor.”
“After going through several mammograms and a biopsy, I kind of knew it was coming,” says 72-year-old Joan Barry. “Normally the doctors send you a letter letting you know everything checked out OK, but they requested I go to the office instead. I knew there was something wrong.”
It was in October of 2009 that Barry received the news that she had breast cancer. During the time since, she has undergone several different treatments to fight the disease. Her first step in treatment was a lymphectomy, a procedure that removed a lymph node from just under her arm. “It was painful,” she says. “It was difficult to use my arm at all for awhile.”
However, Barry’s arm healed and she continued on her treatment journey, visiting WellSpring Oncology for her radiation therapy. Though she felt lethargic during her time with radiation, Barry says she’s doing well now. She is now on a cycle of chemotherapy pills to fight off the disease and is well on her way to beating it.
With the support of her husband of 50 years, Barry is back to life as usual. She has returned to one of her favorite pastimes - playing tennis - and has even taken up golfing. “All I can say is ‘Thank you, God,’” she says. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Being a cancer survivor means...
“Well, it means pretty much everything to me,” says Bowman. “I have a brighter perspective and appreciate things I may not have truly appreciated before.”
“I’m just really fortunate,” Hollen says. “And I’ve learned to truly pay attention to what my body is telling me.”
“That I’m still alive and kicking,” says Colgan. “And that I get to watch my 13-year-old granddaughter grow-up.”
“It means I beat the odds,” says Counts. “It’s a new day.”
“It means life,” says Barry. “It’s like Christmas. Everything is more beautiful.”