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Stories from the war on cancer

Inspirational first-person accounts of cancer survivors

Posted: May 18, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 18, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Alison Lindemann, third from right, celebrates her participation in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Lindemann and five friends raised more than $12,000 for the walk.

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Alison Lindemann

I had just run my second half marathon and was on Christmas break in Austin, when I discovered a lump while jogging. I actually found two letters from Sheila Veloz sitting in my “someday maybe” stack of papers. Really? I couldn’t find the time to drive a mile from my office and get a fifteen minute mammogram in the last three years?  PLEASE go get one if you haven’t had one lately!

I learned that I had Invasive Ductal carcinoma and because my cancer was hormone negative, I was going to need chemotherapy.  But, the good news was that my tumor was relatively small and my cancer was caught early. 

My year long treatment consisted of surgery to remove the lump and seven lymph nodes, nearly five months of chemo,

thirty three treatments of radiation , and a year of injections of the life saving drug, Herceptin.

While I eventually had to give up running during chemo, I knew the benefits of exercise, so I was determined to keep my tennis going. I truly feel staying acting made a difference!

I also participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, along with five of my dear friends, and we raised more than $12,000.  An amazing experience I will never forget!

There are always those uncomfortable moments in public, especially when you’re dealing with the loss of your hair.

One of the dads from my son’s baseball team, wanted to know the name of my hairdresser, so he could pass it along to his girlfriend. You should have seen the look on his face when I told him it was a wig! Poor guy! 

And once, during a small break out session at an international conference in Las Vegas, (I own a Digital Marketing firm), I ditched the wig due to the heat, and wore an elastic  wrap on my head. The presenter asked me if I was from the Middle East.  I told her, “No, but I did grow up in the Mid-West!”

My husband and two sons took great care of me.  I have no other family in the area. But I do have an amazing group of friends who took me under their wing, delivered dozens of meals and care packages, even from clients and co-workers I hadn’t seen in ten years.  I knew I was blessed beyond words!

 

Christy Mayberry

Late summer of 2002, I was a happily married mother of two (a daughter, 10, and a son, 6), and worked part time as an art teacher. I was in perfect health, very active and athletic, until my gynecologist palpated an irregularity in my right breast. I was under forty and never had a mammogram before. But the mammogram and ultra-sound tests came back “suspicious,” and so I underwent a lumpectomy three days later. 

This was followed by chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, more chemo, radiation, and removal of my ovaries.  My doctors recommended the most aggressive treatment for my age and my diagnoses: Right breast, infiltrating ductal carcinomas, lymph nodes positive, and DCIS, high grade. The last on this list, DCIS, high grade, pointed to a high probability the cancer could return in five years or less.

I spent the next two years, one foot in front of the other, moving closer to the end of my cancer journey.

The pain of having to tell my children and my parents that I had cancer was the most scarring, most traumatic, and most painful process of all. I would never have made it through the journey without my team of doctors, both Western and Eastern, family, friends, their positive attitudes, and laughter.

What did I learn? Before my diagnosis, my kids played multiple sports and activities. My husband and I would each take one and race around to get their activities complete and return exhausted at the end of the weekend. Slow down! Simplify! Don’t let activities dictate your life.  Families come first!

In fact, my hair loss became a family affair. Before the chemo could take away my locks, my family gathered round as I shaved my head. My girlfriend, Lissa Gibbs, said I set the bar so high living with cancer, that I ruined the thought of anyone taking cancer laying down, even if they just needed a nap!

I am now 49 will soon celebrate my ten year cancer free anniversary. Unfortunately, my mother, 78, is now recovering from an early stage of ductal carcinoma with the treatment of a lumpectomy and radiation Pro-Ton therapy. My daughter Devon, 20, and son Dylan, 16, are highly likely to carry the BRCA gene mutations and will be undergoing genetic testing. Upon the results, they can formulate a plan to decrease their risks of cancer.

As I look back, I would have never become the person I am today and never met the most amazing people. I am stronger than I ever imagined and learned to let go of the small things. I laugh and love daily. Life is an absolute gift and blessing. Nothing is worth more than this day.

 

 

Denise Bailey

I think I had a five minute “Pity Party” and then became a cheerleader for my own cause.  I put a smile on my face and rallied my family into believing I was going to be okay.  The hardest part was telling my children, Brittney, 24, and Kevin, 19.  I am a single mom and have had M.S. for ten years.  The three of us thought….REALLY? 

I had a rough summer.  My father passed away in June and I was preparing to take my son to N.Y.U. when I received the “letter” from Sheila Veloz (Breast Imaging Center) that I had to come back for additional testing. I didn’t have time for this to be cancer. I was going to New York!  That’s all I could focus on.

As we were leaving August 24 for New York, we got in the car and heard on the radio New York airport had closed due to a hurricane.  We later referred to that storm as “Hurricane Denise.”  Long story short, we eventually made it there and as a family, we got Kevin settled in. I flew home four days later to have the surgery (lumpectomy).

I believe everything happens for a reason.  In hindsight, it couldn’t have worked out better. I was lucky to have childhood friend Mindy Burgess, nurse navigator for breast cancer treatment at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. She kept me laughing even through the pain.

It is always awkward in social situations when someone asks how you are.  Am I opening a can of worms or ruining the party?  A friend told me how good I looked for being a cancer patient.  She particularly commented on my “good color” as she pointed at my chest.  I had to tell her that was the “burn” from my recent radiation treatment.  Sometimes it’s better just to say, “Thank you.  I just got back from Hawaii!”

I know the word is out to get your routine mammograms.

My cancer was “high grade,” which meant it was growing fast.  It was caught early and was non-invasive.  I feel very lucky.  If I had waited, my story might have been different. I remember only the positive.

I know it sounds crazy, but having breast cancer feels like a blessing.  I met the most caring people.  I was helped by the Circle of Hope, Inc., a breast cancer support group, emotionally and financially.  They even made me a Circle of Hope Princess!

It is my pleasure to get the word out that there is help in this community for women in need.  I am looking forward to the “Survivor Lap” at the Relay for Life.  I will be jumping for joy! I try to remember that no matter how tough life gets, there is always something to celebrate.

 

Diane Lindsey

It can never be a good time to have breast cancer.  But for Diane (Silgero) Lindsey the diagnosis came at a particularly heart-breaking point in her life.

Lindsey, a sixth grade teacher at North Park Elementary School, had just lost her very closest friend to a yearlong battle with breast cancer.  Her mother was in the midst of treatment for stage four of the disease.  Then, just after her 40th birthday, Lindsey found out she, too, had breast cancer.

Her reaction?  Disbelief at first.  Then fear.  She had already seen what cancer could do.

“I felt like my body had let me down,” Lindsey said.  “I was scared more than angry.  Then I felt guilty because my cancer was at stage two.  I werould survive to see my children grow up.  But my friend, Joy Klepfer (also a teach at North Park) and my mom wouldn’t get that with their children and grandchildren.”

Lindsey had found two masses through self-examination that did not show even show up on a mammogram. She had an ultra-sound to confirm the locations of the lesions and then had a lumpectomy followed by four rounds of chemotherapy and 37 radiation treatments.

She had a magnificent support system of colleagues, friends and family who helped with meals and stayed with her during surgery and treatments.  There are five children at home—three of her boys, plus two stepchildren.  Her husband was able to drop down to working part-time and “was right there all the time.”

Lindsey’s son, Zach, now 14, said that when he found out that his mom had cancer he thought it might be a joke. They had just gone through so much with Joy Klepfer and her family.  His grandmother was in treatment.  “But,” said Zach, “I know that you can’t joke about cancer.”

Although there are things that made them laugh.  For example, what Lindsey’s then four-year-old nephew said when he saw she had lost her long hair to chemo: “Aunt Didi! Your hair popped off!”

It’s been two years since Lindsey completed her aggressive treatments for breast cancer.  But even the day of her last radiation session was bittersweet.  That was the day Lindsey ’s mother died.

Although she was able to come back to teaching after only one semester, Lindsey says her nightmare with cancer lasted much longer.  It was a five-year journey that gave her some surprising insights and helped her understand more. 

“It started in 2006 when Joy was diagnosed,” she said, “and then it took me really until about the end of last year—2011—to feel like I was myself again.  But you find out through all this how strong you are.  I talked to my friend and to my mother like I never had before.

“People say, ‘be positive! Stay strong!’ But at some point there are patients who won’t beat cancer.  What do you say to them?  You need to ask ‘what do you want me to say to your children?’ That’s what they want you to ask.”

Lindsey’s home backs up to Central Park (in Saugus) and every year she can hear the Relay for Life taking place. She hasn’t felt like going the past few years.

“It would stir up a lot of memories,” she says. “But I think this year I’m ready to go.  Maybe I’ve grown.”

Lindsey has also moved on.  She’s back teaching sixth grade at North Park Elementary School.  Her trademark long, red hair has grown long, full and curly.  Most of her students and their parents do not know she had cancer.  But that is okay, too.

“Cancer is something that happened in my life,” said Lindsey, “but I don’t want it to define me.”

 

Diane Smith

I am 55 years old, and was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 53. I’d lived in Santa Clarita for nearly 15 years. The cancer was found during a routine mammogram -- I never felt a lump at all. I got a call after my mammogram that they found something “suspicious” and needed to do a more extensive mammogram along with a breast ultrasound.  I wasn't really worried. 

But while doing the ultrasound, the technician said she wanted to call the radiologist in to see the ultrasound as it was going on. I thought right away, "Hmm, she wants her to see this live and not read film."  After about 40 minutes they said there was a mass (that was the exact word they used -- they never used the tumor word) and they needed to do a core needle biopsy.  I decided to just do it then.  The radiologist said that was good because this way they could get the results back a day or two sooner. I thought, “If they’re concerned about having results one or two days earlier, she must think it's serious.”

About five days later my gynecologist called and said, "Are you sitting down?" I told her I wasn't but I would, and I knew right then I had cancer. She didn't beat around the bush at all but just said I had a malignant tumor, and asked if I knew what that meant. I said, “Yeah, I have breast cancer.” 

When I told my husband, he just hugged me and said he knew I'd be okay. I shed one tear, and that was it.  I felt in my heart that it'd been caught early, and that I would be okay. My first thought was, "Okay, I know what I have. Now I have to fight it."

The MRI I had at City of Hope showed that I had a second, suspicious tumor behind the first one, and given the size, I was not a candidate for a lumpectomy. 

I chose to have a skin-saving mastectomy with implant reconstructive surgery. An expander would be put in the same time they did the mastectomy, and then my skin would be expanded little by little over the next four months. Once my skin healed, the expander would be removed and a permanent implant would be inserted.  I also opted for only a one-sided mastectomy and not a bi-lateral.

Once I knew exactly what my treatment was and when my surgery would be, I told my family. I told people-- and I truly meant this-- that I was not upset or worried.  I said I was looking at this as though it were any other illness. I needed treatment, would have to have some recovery period, and then I would be fine.

The hardest part was telling my children. Our daughter was away at college in Arizona.  I explained that I had had a mammogram a year earlier (and every year since I was 40), and that I was sure it'd been caught early. I told her the best thing she could do for me was to continue doing exactly what she'd been doing so far -- stay in school, go to classes, enjoy her friends, and not to worry. We then told our son, who was a sophomore at Valencia High at the time.  He sat there with a stone face and just asked, "Was it caught early, Mom?" 

I would say most of my family and a lot of friends cried when I told them-- we laugh now remembering how I was comforting them.  I just figured that there was nothing I could have done to prevent it, so what could I be upset or mad about? I felt like it was just the luck of the draw – one in seven women get breast cancer and I was one of those who got it.

On April 13, 2010; I had a left-side mastectomy. The surgeons were not able to save as much skin as they as would have liked. They were afraid I could get an infection, and that could get into the expander. So the next day my plastic surgeon removed a bit more of my skin, and was able to save the expander. I had a third surgery to remove the expander and put in the permanent implant, and a fourth to do the nipple reconstruction.

A funny incident took place after the expansion process and before I got the permanent implant.  Because of my surgeries and incisions, I was very, very limited in what I could do with my left arm -- no raising it even to shoulder level, stuff like that. The inactivity caused a lot of sagging skin. During one check up, my surgeon asked if she could bring in some residents from USC.   So in come five surgical residents.  As the doctor was explaining things, I said to her, "I want you to make one note in my chart. Please note that prior to mastectomy patient did not exhibit any signs of old lady sagging arms." She and the residents all laughed at that. 

I thought that by getting my mammograms every year and doing self-exams, I was sort of preventing getting cancer. I knew logically that wasn't the case, but I felt like, “If I go every year, I will get the 'all is ok' message.“ But of course, all that does (and it does a lot!) is allow for very early detection. That is why my cancer had not spread. It was localized in the tumor, and had not spread into my lymph nodes.

I have had two mammograms since my mastectomy. I hold my breath a little bit while I am waiting for the results.  Thank God mine have been fine.  I have an excellent prognosis, with a 92 percent chance (per testing) of never having a reoccurrence.  I feel like I had it a lot easier than many, many people. I did not have to undergo chemotherapy, and I really was never in much pain.  I am really fortunate.

Sometimes when I am impatient with people, with waiting in lines or traffic, I kind of wish I could say that having cancer made me realize how petty all that is. But I can't say that. I think in many ways, it really has been like any other illness. I was sick, there was a cure, I underwent treatment, and it's behind me now.   My brother put it so well during my treatment.  He said, “Before you know it, this will be in your rearview window.”  And now it is!  

 

Jeff Mazie

“What’s that on your shin?” Carol Mazie asked her husband, Jeff, in March of 1998.  “It looks big!”

“Just a mole or something.” 

Mazie shrugged off the question until Carol asked again the following week and Jeff made an appointment to see a doctor.

“The dermatologist took one glance and got a very bad look on his face,” Mazie said.  “He said, ‘this comes off today.’ “

The result from the biopsy was stage one melanoma.

Mazie was 37 years old.  His family—including daughter Rachel and sons Joshua and Matthew—had only been living in North Park for about a year.  The malignant mole surfaced about three or four months after the Mazies moved to the Santa Clarita Valley from La Crescenta.

“For me, the diagnosis had less far-reaching ramifications than it had for my family,” Mazie said.  “I was only concerned about getting the operation scheduled, thinking about insurance, that kind of thing.  But to my loved ones it was cancer and it was serious.”

Mazie’s surgery to remove the melanoma was put on a rush schedule at City of Hope.  He remembers the operation was done on May 1, which at the time was recognized as “Melanoma Monday.”  Although the mole had only been about ¼ inch in size, Mazie’s surgeons removed a deep, quarter-sized area.  Pathology was done on the spot and it was determined that all of the malignancy had been removed. 

“Most people view their skin as a kind of sheath over their bodies.  But it’s actually the largest organ we have.” Mazie said. “Cancer of the skin can spread easily.  And it can also metastasize to other organs.”

Mazie is one of the lucky ones.  He did not have to go through chemotherapy or radiation.   For the first few years after the occurrence, he felt like he didn’t really have cancer because he didn’t have to go through any of those aggressive, and often debilitating, treatments.

“I felt like I was cheating if I said I was a ‘survivor,'" he said. 

Then Mazie attended his first Relay for Life.  He saw first hand that cancer can take different forms and have different levels of impact on people’s lives.  He came to the realization that he really was like others who had faced the disease.

“I understood that I shouldn’t short change myself thinking I didn’t deserve to call myself ‘survivor.’  And that felt pretty good,“ he said.  

As dangerous as melanoma can be, Mazie, now 51, has not had any reoccurrence.  He has had many moles removed since his diagnosis, but all the biopsies have been fine.  Carol and their children, who have attended North Park Elementary, Rio Norte and Academy of the Canyons, are also careful to go for mole checks.  Jeff and Carol are avid cyclists, but they are always careful to apply—and reapply—sun block.

Mazie knows things might not have turned out so well if it hadn’t been for Carol’s persistence. 

“I listened to my loved one,” he said.  “Carol made sure we caught the melanoma early.  It could have been much worse if I’d waited any longer.”

 

Sheri Clement

My regular doctor discovered the mole on my back and suggested I see a dermatologist.  But somehow this concern

slipped through the cracks and life got in the way. Before I knew it, a year and a half had gone by before I had it checked out. I have my boss to thank for that.  An amazing man who too, had a bout with melanoma and urged me to make an appointment right away. I had been a stay at home mom for twelve years, and had just gone back to work. If it hadn’t been for him, more years would have gone by. I will always be grateful to him.

I didn’t expect the news to come over the phone, though.  I hope doctors will be more sensitive when they say those words you’ll never forget. I was also told my prognosis was “grim” and that I had about a 30% chance to survive up to five years.

Following surgery to remove the mole,  I was diagnosed as having Stage 4 cancer.  I have since had five more surgeries. About a year ago, I found a lump under my arm while trying on a shirt in a dressing room.  I broke down and cried.  I was all alone and I knew it was bad.  I had 25 lymph nodes removed from the area.

There is no cure for melanoma.  It does not respond to chemotherapy.  My doctors feel the best chance I have is with Interferon therapy, even though it helps only five percent of those who choose it.  I give myself a shot once a week, mixing the concoction myself. The drug causes hair loss, tiredness, weight loss, depression and more.

I still work full time, raise my three kids, live my life and do the best I can each day.  That’s all I can ask for. It is what it is.  Being positive is half the battle, my doctors day. The best part of my journey has been finding out who my real friends are.  I appreciate and am so grateful to those in my life.

I personally want to thank all of them who have driven me to the doctor, cried with me , laughed with me, drank wine with me, brought me dinner, tackled my laundry, gave me medicine every four hours all night long, listened to me, pushed me in a wheelchair in Las Vegas, taken care of my kids, visited me in the hospital, and just plain loved me!

I also want to thank Alison Lindeman, who my friend, Natalie, introduced me to one Sunday afternoon. Alison is an amazing woman who was such an inspiration to me.  She said the hardest part about cancer, is experiencing the sad stares from strangers as you go about your routine.  “That’s what makes you think you’re sick,” Alison told me, “Even though you don’t feel sick!”

It’s true my life has become a series of oncologists, dermatologists, CT technicians, blood draws, scans, X-Rays, and needles, but that is not what drives me. My three children drive me.  They need me.  I need them.  They ground me and keep my fight alive.  I want to give my friends what they give me.  Laughter, hope and joy.  Cancer does not define me.  My story is not over.  I am a survivor and a lucky one at that!

 

In memory of those who lost their battles with cancer.

 

Jeff McIntyre

When Jeff McIntyre was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer in 2003, the average survival rate was about 18 months.  He lived another 6 ½ years.

“He truly beat the odds,” said Courtney McIntyre about her husband.  “He was young.  He was in good health prior to the diagnosis.  And we were very aggressive with his treatment.”

But Jeff McIntyre also had the genetic odds stacked against him.  His father had a kidney removed due to cancer at age 36.  His paternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer in her 20’s.  His cancer was not caught sooner because he didn’t know there was a problem and he didn’t have a colonoscopy.  One of the tip-offs of colorectal cancer is the presence of blood in bowel movements.  But he did not see any blood.  He was colorblind.

McIntyre said Jeff “kicked himself” that he did not get tested earlier.  But then he didn’t let himself think about what could have been.  He was determined to get every inch out of life.  He went to every soccer game; basketball game and gymnastics meet for his children, Katie— now a graduating senior at Valencia — and Alex, who just completed his freshman year at Notre Dame. 

“You can feel sorry for yourself, but it’s not going to change anything,” said McIntyre.  “Jeff was one of those people who never failed if he put his mind to it.” 

Jeff McIntyre was diagnosed with cancer just days before his 40th birthday.  At that time drug treatment for colorectal cancer was very limited.  But almost immediately five new drugs were released for patients like Jeff to take as part of their cancer therapy.  The availability of those drugs helped put Jeff on his road to beat the odds.  He had chemotherapy.  There were surgeries, among them two liver resections and one lung resection.  But the medical treatment was only one factor in his fight. 

Katie was 8 and Alex was 10 when Jeff McIntyre was diagnosed.  The family had always traveled and cancer was not going to stop them from doing what they loved.  They continued to take their annual trips to Maui with extended family and to northern California with friends.  Alex was in travel and club baseball, so the McIntyres frequently went to watch games in Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Santa Barbara and even Cooperstown, New York.   

Jeff McIntyre was a diehard San Diego Padres fan, so they returned to Cooperstown in 2007 for Tony Gwynne’s induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

“Jeff and I did several trips to Europe prior to his diagnosis and we were so glad we did,” said McIntyre.  “It wasn't cheap and Jeff was, but after he was diagnosed, he often commented how glad he was that we had taken those trips.”

McIntyre also pointed out that they were able to avoid financial disaster with the understanding of his employer, the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Building and Safety.

 “There are many people who lose their jobs because they are out so often for treatment and medical appointments.  Jeff could have lost his job and we could have ended up destitute and bankrupt from the cost of fighting his cancer, but we didn't,” she said. 

She also gives credit to the advocacy work done by the American Cancer Society. 

“I can't imagine trying to fight this disease while wondering if you are going to be able to keep a roof over your head,” she said. 

Courtney’s employer, CalArts, was very supportive as well.

“I took off time while Jeff was sick at the end and then they held my job for four months -- although they didn't have to legally -- until I could return to work. Again, I can't imagine the stress some people must have trying to fight cancer while fighting for their jobs,” she said.

Jeff McIntyre died on June 13, 2009.  But he died on his terms.  Cancer didn’t change his outlook on life, said McIntyre.  “We just decided to keep living the way we always had.”

Jeff McIntyre insisted his cancer “should never be an impediment to what Alex and Katie can achieve.”  McIntyre said her children have been tested for the genetic markers for cancer.  Neither one carries the gene.  But she is emphatic they still need to be screened for colon cancer, just like the rest of us.

“I want people to know that to go at age 50 for a colonoscopy is nothing,” McIntyre said. “The alternative is a whole lot worse.”

 

Vicki Kennedy

Dec. 5, 1955-April 5, 2012

As written by her best friend, Mary Brock. 

 

Vicki Kennedy’s life was celebrated at Placerita Junior High where students, teachers, parents, friends and family, remembered her joy for life, huge smile and belly laugh.  I have been helping out with her Drama Club.  It is clear the kids really loved, trusted, and respected Vicki. Her students and parents have pulled together to finish the two plays of the year, “Jane Eyre” and “The Ghost of Ganterville Hall,” which opens May 23 and May 24 at 7 pm in Tanner Hall.

Every Saturday, Vicki and I would haunt thrift stores and yard sales for unique costumes for little or no money.   We’d each take a car to cover more ground. Although we wanted to eat healthy more times than not, we would up at the Way Station to share a chicken fried steak breakfast!

Our kids grew up together as two big Star Wars fans in Junior High School in Placerita. Vicki was born and raised in Batesville, Indiana.  She was a southern farm girl. 

Vicki’s cancer was discovered because of what we thought was a sinus infection and a month of unrelenting headaches.  She finally went to the doctor, and after a series of X rays and tests, the cancer was discovered.

This was all in about five days.  We really don’t know if Vicki thought she was as sick as she was.  We talked about how we would fight and do this together, sister to sister. We were closer than sisters.  We had our love of costuming and children.  I loved my best friend and miss her every day.

 

Relay for Life will be held beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday in Central Park in Saugus. For more information visit www.scvrelay.org

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