Perhaps no other word has the power to instill such fear in the human heart. And no wonder, considering that there was a time when a cancer diagnosis was unequivocally a death sentence. While cancer in all its guises remains a formidable foe, there is much reason for hope.
According to the latest available National Cancer Institute statistics, more than 1.4 million cancer cases were diagnosed in 2009. But on the other side of the ledger, as of January 2006, more than 11 million Americans with a history of cancer are still going strong. On-going research and ever-evolving treatments have helped make surviving cancer possible.
Count among the growing number of cancer survivors a special quartet of Ocala women. Each has battled a form of cancer, and all have emerged from the fight scarred maybe, but not defeated. And in successfully transforming from cancer victim to cancer survivor, they have become advocates for hope. They are truly living proof that there is life after cancer.
‘I Breezed Through The Treatments’
“I knew what that meant,” says Mary, now five years into her new life. “That the cancer had been contained and hadn’t spread into my lymph nodes. I knew then I was going to be all right.”
The prologue to Mary’s latest life chapter began simply enough with her routine annual mammogram in April 2004. Having the mammogram was something Mary, known to her close friends and family as Mary C., had begun when she’d turned 40 and faithfully undergone every year since.
“Having a mammogram was just part of my annual health checkup,” says Mary, 61, a tall and trim woman blessed with a natural elegant beauty. “No one in my family had ever had any kind of cancer, so I would go have the mammogram and then not give it another thought.”
But this one, at age 56, would be different. The next day, Mary received the phone call that she never thought she would. Something suspicious had showed up in her right breast on the mammogram. The doctor wanted her to come back the next day and undergo a more conclusive sonogram test and, if necessary, a biopsy.
“I was stunned,” recalls Mary. “I couldn’t even feel a lump in my breast. I was sure the doctor was just being cautious.”
With husband Sam at her side, Mary was again surprised when the doctor told her the test revealed she did indeed have a malignant tumor. He recommended surgery as soon as possible.
Given that Mary is a retired clinical social worker, it should come as no surprise that her first concern was for family and friends. She wanted to be open and honest with them, but mostly she didn’t want them worrying about her. And at the top of her list was daughter Mary Joyce, only 13 at the time.
“I didn’t want her to worry that her mother wouldn’t be around to see her graduate high school,” says Mary. “But I knew I would be too emotional if I told her, so Sam told her and she took it well. She believed I would be all right.”
Besides providing much appreciated support, Mary’s reaching out to family and friends paid off in another unexpected way.
“I got a note from a friend of a friend,” says Mary, who still marvels at the chain of events. “It simply said, ‘If it was me, I’d go to Moffitt.’ At the time, I didn’t even know what Moffitt was. But I got on the Internet and checked out the website.”
Mary discovered the Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, one of the top cancer centers in the country. Mary thought it was worth investigating further.
After meeting with a surgeon who went over her surgical options, Mary decided to go with a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy. While in surgery, not only would the malignant growth be removed but also a section of her armpit lymph nodes to test if the cancer had spread.
Enter that smiling nurse who told Mary the best news she could’ve heard.
“I had to have 32 radiation treatments, five days a week for about six weeks. I was able to have that here in Ocala at Boissoneault,” Mary says. “About halfway through the treatments, I would get very tired if I stayed still for long. But other than that, and a little skin discoloration, I breezed through the treatments. Now I go back to Moffitt for a checkup every six months and to Boissoneault once a year. ”
A master multi-tasker, Mary has a long history of community involvement and currently belongs to more than a dozen organizations. She serves on boards, committees, and foundations, often as chairwoman, of Altrusa International of Ocala, Arnett House, Habitat for Humanity, Ocala Royal Dames, and United Way of Marion County. She is on the board of directors of the Marion Unit of the American Cancer Society as well as a volunteer with the organization’s Reach to Recovery program.
“We give them information, aid, and support,” says Mary, a fourth-generation Ocalan. “The most important thing is to let them know that they’re not alone.”
For Mary, her life as a cancer survivor continues to be filled with joy. Daughter Mary Joyce graduated this past spring and headed off to Spelman College in Atlanta. Mary and Sam, who is the Ocala Police Department’s chief of police, are closing in on 35 years of marriage.
“I’ve always been a person who enjoyed life,” says Mary, a self-professed hugger. “But my cancer experience has deepened my gratitude for everyone and everything even more. I try to just enjoy the moment.”
‘Everyone Started Calling Me Radioactive Girl’
A cancer diagnosis is difficult enough for an adult to process, nevertheless a teenager. Yet when asked about her cancer experience, a now-healthy, 18-year-old Britney smiles, lightly touches the faint-pink, two-inch scar across the middle of her throat, and says, “Actually, it’s a funny story.”
Britney doesn’t remember a time that she didn’t have a little bump on her throat. She was used to it and thought it was normal, as did everyone else around her. Other than the usual childhood colds and such, she was never seriously ill. Raised in Ocala by her grandparents, David and Jean Dickinson, Britney was pretty much your normal little girl growing up.
“One day when I was 15, some classmates started teasing me about the bump on my throat,” recalls Britney, who is petite, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned with sun-streaked blond hair that brushes her shoulders. “Somebody said that I had an Adam’s apple and only guys had that. They teased me and said I must really be a boy, and I got very upset. Now I look back and think that probably saved my life.”
The teasing episode made everyone view Britney’s bump on her throat with a new perspective. Looking back at photos of Britney’s childhood photos, her grandparents realized the bump had grown over the years. They immediately set up an appointment with her regular doctor, who in turn referred her to Dr. William B. Thompson of Ocala Ear Nose and Throat Specialists.
“Dr. Thompson told me that thyroid cancer was very rare in someone as young as me,” says Britney. “He said he was 99 percent sure that it wasn’t cancer, but that I definitely needed to have a biopsy to make sure.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, 37,000 cases of thyroid cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Less than one percent of all thyroid nodules are found to be malignant. While thyroid cancer can occur at any age, it’s most common after age 30. Despite those statistics, Britney, only 15 at the time, was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Of the four types of thyroid cancer, papillary has the highest rate of incidence and a 97-percent cure rate if caught early and treated appropriately.
“I cried when Dr. Thompson told me I had cancer,” says Britney, who with a small smile adds, “He also told me that if I had to have cancer, thyroid cancer was the one to have because it’s so treatable. That made me feel better.”
Two days after her 16th birthday, Dr. Thompson performed thyroid surgery on Britney. A second biopsy done during that surgery revealed more cancer. That meant another surgery two weeks later to remove the remaining thyroid lobe. Six weeks later, Britney underwent radioactive iodine treatment at Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
“I was radioactive,” says Britney. “No one could come in my bedroom and I couldn’t go out. Everyone talked to me from the doorway and left my food there, too. That’s when everyone started calling me Radioactive Girl. I liked to think of it as my superhero name.”
Britney passed the time with a laptop, watching movies, reading the Twilight series books, and listening to music on her iPod, including her favorite groups, A Day To Remember and Bring Me The Horizon.
Once bedroom quarantine was over, Britney could still have no physical contact with anyone for two weeks. This included no hugs from Victor, her boyfriend of only two weeks when she was diagnosed with cancer.
“It wasn’t easy,” says Britney. “But, in a way, the experience brought us all closer together.”
For the rest of her life, Britney will have to take a synthetic thyroid hormone pill and have twice-yearly checkups. At this writing, she had undergone two of three prescribed MRI body scans to detect any further evidence of cancer; both had come back negative.
As a Forest High School senior, Britney was dual-enrolled at Central Florida Community College as well. She is now attending CFCC full-time on an American Cancer Society Reaching Out to Cancer Kids scholarship. Britney’s career goal is to be a teacher, aiming for a master’s in early childhood education. After she earns her associate degree, she hopes to attend either the University of Central Florida or University of Florida.
“I have to admit I used to be a bit of a princess,” says Britney, who now volunteers with the Marion Unit of the American Cancer Society. “But my cancer experience has opened my eyes, changed my perspective, and made me focus. Now I can’t wait to make a difference in the world.”
‘A Different Life, A Different Voice’
Without a larynx, or voice box, a person loses the normal method of breathing and speaking. A tracheotomy is performed, leaving a permanent hole in the throat to which the windpipe is attached. This means that the person no longer breathes through their nose and mouth, but through the hole in their throat. And without vocal chords, a person has to learn to talk again with the help of a speech pathologist and through various aids, such as an electrolarynx, or automatic valve button.
“Having a laryngectomy changes your life,” says Maggie, a retired social worker who originally hails from Boston. “You can never take breathing or talking for granted again. There are challenges every day and there is some fear, especially of not being able to breathe, but I’m proof that it’s possible to live a good life after throat cancer.”
A smoker for nearly 40 years, Maggie didn’t worry too much about her recurrent sore throats and hoarseness. But when she spit up a little blood after a coughing spell, even she became concerned. Maggie’s regular doctor did a bronchial scope and referred her to Dr. William B. Thompson at Ocala Ear Nose and Throat Specialists.
“Dr. Thompson told me that I had a malignant tumor on my vocal chords,” recalls Maggie, whose no-fuss pixie haircut matches her to‑the‑point personality. “In May 2000, he removed it by endoscopic surgery and I opted not to have follow‑up radiation treatment. Ten months later, the tumor came back. On April 18, 2001, I had to have a larynectomy. The good news was that the cancer hadn’t spread through my lymph nodes and I didn’t have to have radiation treatment. But I was devastated by the loss of my voice and how my life was changed.”
But true to her Irish heritage, Maggie didn’t stay down for long. She had to have a tracheoesophageal puncture with prosthesis (TEP) inserted in her throat to keep an airway open between the trachea and esophagus. As soon as she could, Maggie began speech therapy and started looking at the options to have a voice again.
“I really wanted to have an automatic valve button instead of just relying on the electrolarynx,” explains Maggie. “But the extensive surgery hadn’t left enough of a ridge inside my throat to hook the button on. I refused to give up and kept researching. More than two years after my larynectomy, I found out about experimental work being done at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.”
With no guarantees that the experimental surgery would work, Maggie took the chance anyway. And there was tremendous disappointment when the initial surgery failed. But when contacted and told there was another experimental procedure the doctors wanted to try, Maggie once again signed on.
“The doctors took 10 inches of ligament from my thigh muscle and used it to create a ridge inside my throat,” explains Maggie. “Then a customized automatic valve button was created for me. It took three years and two months, but I finally had a button.”
The customized automatic valve button, which resembles a screw top glass bottle cap, fits over the tracheotomy hole, known as a stoma. When Maggie talks, the air goes through the button to create vibration similar to the action of vocal chords. And thus Maggie had her voice again—a little mechanized, but natural enough that there is even a slight hint of her Boston accent.
For laryngectomees, or “laries” as they call themselves, there is crucial daily maintenance care of their stoma, TEP, and, in Maggie’s case, automatic valve button. Simple things like eating (drink a lot of water, take smaller bites, and chew a lot) and showering (keep water out of the stoma) have to be thoroughly considered. Medical bracelets must be worn and stickers adhered to car windshields, identifying a laryngectomee so that people realize they breathe through their throat and not through their nose and mouth, since an oxygen mask placed incorrectly could cause suffocation.
An active advocate for laryngectomees, Maggie is the president of the Marion Unit of the American Cancer Society’s Nu Voice Club of Ocala and the Larygectomee Support Organization. The latter is a fledgling non-profit organization founded by Maggie to reach out to laries. Both groups are there to support those recovering from throat cancer with quality of life and practical issues.
“It’s a different life, a different voice than before,” Maggie says with a smile. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good life.”
‘We Were All In Survival Mode’
Smallridge had lived with endometriosis since puberty. This is a chronic, painful condition in which the cells lining the inside of the uterus also grow outside the uterine walls. In addition to unusually heavy monthly menstrual flow, the disease also produces adhesions and cysts on the pelvic organs, particularly the ovaries. And almost always, endometriosis interferes with a woman’s ability to have a child.
“I was one of the lucky ones, and I got pregnant when I was 18,” says Tonya, whose daughter Kristina was born with no complications. “I had feared having endometriosis would prevent my dream to have a large family. But when I had Kristina, I thought it was possible.”
But for the next 10 years, Tonya struggled with the endometriosis and failed to become pregnant again. In an effort not to give up on her dream, Tonya underwent several laparoscopies to clear her uterine cavity of the endometriosis overgrowth. The results of one of those surgeries yielded some sobering news.
“The doctor told me bluntly that cancer cells had been found on my cervix,” recalls Tonya, a certified interior decorator who grew up in Dunnellon. “I was in shock. I walked out of the doctor’s office, got in my car, and sat there crying for an hour. Then I went home and cried some more. Part of me knew that this was probably the end of my dream of having more children, but yet I didn’t want to give up.”
According to American Cancer Society estimates for 2009, more than 11,000 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed. Of that number, more than 4,000 women will die from the disease. Part of the reason the cancer is so deadly is because few warning symptoms show until they reach an advanced stage.
When Tonya’s biopsy came back positive for cervical cancer, she instructed the doctor to remove only as much of her cervix as necessary. She was clinging stubbornly to the possibility of more children. And when the test results from that surgery came back positive for cancer again, Tonya was still unrelenting. For a second scheduled surgery two months later, she gave the doctor the same instructions. This time the results were in her favor—no signs of the cervical cancer.
“Amazingly, I got pregnant again a year later,” says Tonya. “But only two weeks after my ultrasound, I miscarried. I was heartbroken. I still have that ultrasound picture.”
While the cervical cancer was gone, the endometriosis persisted. When a softball-sized cyst on her ovaries ruptured, Tonya’s doctor recommended a hysterectomy.
“I was devastated,” she says. “But when I thought about it, I realized that if I hadn’t had the endometriosis, I might not have found out about the cervical cancer until it was too late. It had been a miracle.”
One, as it would turn out, that would give Tonya the strength to deal with more tragedy.
“A year after my hysterectomy, my sister Karen’s four-year-old son Chad was killed when a tree fell on him,” says Tonya somberly. “A few months later, my mother, Sue, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The next year, Karen who was pregnant with twins, lost one of the babies in childbirth. Then I quit my job to take care of my mother, who died of breast cancer in 2003. It felt like all we did was grieve, but yet there really was no time. We were all in survival mode.”
But finally after all the tragedy, some good news arrived. Tonya’s daughter Kristina, who also suffers with endometriosis, has miraculously had three children with husband Cam. Tonya is a youthful grandmother to Casson, 2, and one-year-old twins Arran and Trevor.
When her best friend, Elaine Hobbs’ sister Michelle, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, Tonya felt a deep desire to give back in a bigger way. She became involved with the Marion Unit of the American Cancer Society, now handling the accounting and registration for the annual Relay for Life event. But, even then, except for her family and a few close friends, Tonya has kept her own cervical cancer story private—until now.
“I realized all over again how fortunate I continue to be,” says Tonya, 40, a vivacious, petite blonde with bright, almond-colored eyes. “I knew I had to make a difference somehow, and maybe by volunteering and telling my story, I’ll help someone else. It’s my way of honoring all of those whose lives have been touched by cancer.”
Want To Help?
American Cancer Society—Marion Unit: (352) 629-4727
American Cancer Society: cancer.org
National Cancer Institute: cancer.gov