There are more than 100 different kinds of cancer, but there are even more ways to be a cancer survivor.
Some survivors have lingering physical effects, others gain new worries that every new bump or sniffle might be cancer. Some do their best to leave their illness in the past while others throw themselves into advocacy.
Whatever their situation, survivors are always welcome on the second Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. at St. Anthony Hospital, Pendleton for lunch. No cancer-related subject is off the table. At last Tuesday’s gathering they joked about one breast cancer survivor’s memorable “bye bye boobies” party before a double mastectomy and she talked about how uncomfortable and strange it can be to wear prostheses.
That’s the point of the group — to be able to share tips and commiserate with people who have been through something similar and won’t shy away from the awkward parts.
Loretta and Randy Wells
The Wells family knows what it means to survive cancer. Loretta Wells was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and her husband Randy Wells was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009.
Loretta went through surgery and chemotherapy, and it was a rough experience. Even months afterward she was still tired from the chemo and experiencing muscle weakness from the surgery. That’s when Debra Shampine of the Roundup Athletic Club convinced her to let her help.
“My immune system was really low and I couldn’t do a lot, but she was really good about showing me how to do this stuff,” Loretta said.
Out of Shampine’s early efforts to help cancer survivors rebuild their strength came today’s Kick’n Cancer New Beginnings, which offers support to cancer survivors. The nonprofit’s Spirit Program offers cancer survivors a free year’s membership at the Roundup Athletic Club, free fitness classes, a personal trainer, a massage once a month and counseling from a nutritionist.
Loretta said the support of after-cancer programs like Kick’n Cancer and the survivors’ luncheon is important, because the need for emotional support doesn’t end when the cancer goes into remission.
“After I was done with my treatments and the doctor said I was released, it scared me to death because you have someone watching you at all times to make sure you’re OK, and I wasn’t going to have that anymore,” she said.
Nine years after Loretta’s cancer battle, Randy was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“When I thought he would have to go through what I did, I was in tears,” Loretta said.
But Randy was lucky. He was accepted into a proton beam therapy program at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, which he called a “radiation vacation” due to the treatment’s relatively side effect-free nature. At the time men who didn’t go down to Loma Linda for treatment for prostate cancer had to go through surgery, and he said he was grateful to Sen. Bill Hansell, who was the first man from Umatilla County to get treatment at Loma Linda in 2000 and blazed the trail in getting local insurance companies to pay for treatment there.
Randy said after he was done with treatment he quickly returned to his previous level of health and hasn’t noticed lingering physical side effects, other than getting “hooked” on frozen yogurt while in California.
Mentally, however, he acknowledged that cancer changes you.
“Every time something happens, you wonder, is that going to be cancer?” he said.
Pendleton resident Rosemarie Atfield has had cancer three times, but still insists she’s “one of the lucky ones.” She wasn’t even sure her story was worth including in a news article about cancer survivors.
In 2003 she had a double mastectomy to remove breast cancer that was caught early enough that she didn’t need to go through chemo or radiation. Two years later she started losing a significant amount of weight for no apparent reason and insisted that her doctor perform a pelvis-to-shoulder MRI. That MRI caught her early-stage kidney cancer, which was taken care of by removing part of her kidney. Since then she has had two different skin cancers that were again fixed by surgery instead of months-long treatments because she noticed something was wrong and went to see a doctor.
“People don’t pay attention to their bodies the way they should, especially if they’ve been healthy,” she said.
Some survivors just want to move on with their lives after going into remission, but Atfield said attending the monthly survivor luncheons has helped “a lot.” She has made close friendships, helped others and been helped herself. She paints colorful rocks and hides them around town for strangers to find, and said the ones with words like “determination” and “courage” were inspired by her cancer survivor friends.
Eighteen years ago Sharon Maness went through seven and a half weeks of radiation treatment plus a partial mastectomy to treat breast cancer.
“I was so tired all the time when I was done,” she said. “The side effects hung on for six more months.”
She said cancer survivors all know that “you find out who your real friends are” when going through cancer treatments. She got closer than ever to some friends and family as they stepped up to help, while others “slunk away” when the going got tough. Those friendships were never the same.
Cancer survivorship has come with a lot of new friendships, but forging them via participation in cancer-related support groups and nonprofits comes with a price. Maness has had six good friends die from cancer since her own battle. It’s a tough experience each time, and one that causes some survivors to eventually pull back from the groups because they’re tired of losing people.
The thing that keeps many survivors coming back to events like Relay for Life and the survivor luncheons is the chance to support people like Georgia Marshall.
Marshall is currently battling colon cancer, and on Tuesday she broke the news to the survivors’ group that her doctors had made the decision to stop chemotherapy because it was too much for her body to handle.
Cancer survivors are honest and their concern for her is not phony or shallow, Marshall said. She said they’re “like family” now.
“They watch out for you like mother hens,” she said, noting a recent experience where they refused to let her volunteer at a fundraising event because she was so tired from the chemotherapy. “I’ve called a couple of them in the middle of the night when I was having some issues and they were there.”
Not everyone experiences the same side effects, but survivors can still give patients and recent survivors a heads up about things they might possibly experience.
“We all have different cancers, but some of the fears you have, they’ve had,” she said. “I’m glad they’re here.”
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.