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Cancer Survivor Stories

  • Posted: 07/25/2011

Introduction

Once treatment is over, cancer survivors cope with their new life in different ways. While some prefer to put their experiences behind them, others choose to draw on them, and get involved with cancer-related activities or causes. There is a wide range of ways to help others, whether it's taking someone to a doctor's appointment, or deciding to start a Web site. Below are some inspiring stories of survivors who took what they went through with cancer and turned it into something positive. Each individual found a purpose in sharing their experience and giving back to others. Perhaps their stories will inspire you and offer hope that there is truly life after cancer.

Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson
A continuing adventure

Kelly Turner

Kelly Turner
Helping others get help

Mark Ciccarelli

Mark Ciccarelli
Connecting people to people

Byron Dudley

Byron Dudley
A calendar of hope

Minnie Hines-Chen

Minnie Hines-Chen
Living and loving every day

Staci Wright

Staci Wright
Helping kids regain their self image

Gary Bonacker

Gary Bonacker
Biking for life

Katie Strumpf

Katie Strumpf
Sharing her stories

Ben Moon

Ben Moon
The picture of balance

Tamika Felder

Tamika Felder
Survivor and advocate

Matthew Zachary

Matthew Zachary
Composing a support network for young adults

The stories on this page were first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the stories and the photographs are owned by the author and survivors and are used with permission.

For more on life after cancer, read Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment.
For more on getting involved, go to Facing Forward: Making a Difference in Cancer.

Gary Johnson


A continuing adventure

Gary Johnson Gary Johnson

When Gary Johnson went in for surgery to remove a cancerous prostate, doctors discovered that the cancer had already spread to his lymph nodes. Now he's on a treatment that is designed to hold the cancer cells in check for as long as possible. "Since there's no cure for my cancer, my challenge is to live as long and as well as I can," says Gary.

Unwilling to sit back and worry, he and his wife Marlys focus on being proactive in facing down the disease. They have gathered a team of medical professionals, family, friends, and other cancer survivors as a support system. Gary has also changed his lifestyle—he's getting more exercise, getting better nutrition, and finding ways to manage his stress.

My challenge
is to live as long
and as well as I can.

Gary's cancer diagnosis completely changed the priorities in his life. He's now focused on family, faith, and the outdoors. He and Marlys established the 501(c)(3) non-profit Cancer Adventures, and travel across the United States, telling their story to cancer survivors, students, and health professionals.

"Not knowing what the future holds is the hardest part," Gary said recently. "The three things getting me through every day are my faith, my wife, and having this purpose to help others. Having a purpose has turned a negative into a positive."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Kelly Turner


Helping others get help

Kelly Turner Kelly Turner

Kelly Turner, a New Haven, Connecticut, police officer, found a golf ball-sized lump in her breast when she was 36 years old. It turned out to be stage 3 breast cancer.

In July of 2001, Kelly began 4 months of aggressive chemotherapy. She had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery the following January, then radiation therapy 6 months later.

The entire time, Kelly's close friends gave her a tremendous amount of emotional support and helped her through medical appointments and treatments. Her coworkers and church family collected money, and also organized a motorcycle ride and a hockey game to raise funds that could help with her expenses. Kelly coped with the uncertainty of it all with the help of her loved ones, with prayer, and with spiritual music and talks.

I went through cancer
so I could do what
I’m doing now.

On January 1, 2003, after missing 18 months of work, Kelly returned to the police force. Encouraged by the outpouring of emotional and financial support she had received from her friends and coworkers, Kelly decided to help other people the way she had been helped: she formed The Chain Fund, an organization that provides financial assistance to cancer patients and their families. Even though she's helping others through the project, the project is helping her, too, by giving her hope and strength. As she puts it, "I love to be a blessing to others! I enjoy making someone else's life better—even if it's just for a moment in time."

Today, Kelly is cancer free. The Chain Fund has grown to address various emotional and physical needs for cancer patients and families, while continuing its financial focus. Kelly describes herself as shy, but she tirelessly solicits donations and grants for The Chain Fund, holds events and fundraisers, and always thinks of ways she can help others.

Kelly believes cancer changed her as a person. Although she would never want to go through the traumatic and difficult time again, she sees the positive result from it. "I don't think I went through that whole cancer experience to not do anything," she says. "I believe I went through it so I could do what I'm doing now."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Mark Ciccarelli


Connecting people to people

Mark Ciccarelli Mark Ciccarelli

Mark Ciccarelli was diagnosed with Hodgkin disease when he was 9 years old and just about to enter the fourth grade. He did his best to pretend it wasn't that bad, forcing a smile and imagining a time when he'd be cancer free.

Mark missed a lot of school that year, because of the chemotherapy and then the radiation. But he took part in as many activities as he could. There were times when he'd go outside and play kickball hooked up to a catheter in his chest—partly to feel like a normal kid again and partly to reassure his family and friends that he was alright.

Now Mark is 26 years old and cancer free, and he works as a financial advisor. He recalls that when he was going through cancer treatment as a kid, although he couldn't know all the specifics of his cancer, he did know that he had to endure and find strength in every way possible.

Today he credits his support system in helping him do that.

There’s nothing better
than being able
to help others.

"I looked at cancer as a team sport; on my own I would never win, but if I opened up to the positivity of others around me, I knew I would have a fighting chance," he says. "While every day brought on new challenges, both mentally and physically, I always felt love and support from my family, friends, and classmates. Those were the key factors that helped me get through my cancer diagnosis."

Mark also realized how helpful it was to connect with someone who was having a similar experience. "It gives you a lot more strength to talk to someone who understands what you're going through firsthand," he says. "As a 9 year old with hair falling out and constant nausea from medication, I had a really hard time understanding why I was sick. It caused me to be quite shy. I finally felt better when a family friend who had cancer sat me down and spoke to me about our shared experiences. Then I didn't feel like I was the only one."

Mark now helps other cancer survivors make these kinds of helpful connections through Conquer Together, an interactive Web site that he created. The site allows cancer survivors, family members, and caregivers from around the world to share their experiences, reasons for hope, and other messages of encouragement. The site has hundreds of members and gets thousands of hits a day.

"I understand that I'm very fortunate to be here doing what I'm doing," Mark says. "There's nothing better than being able to help others."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Byron Dudley


A calendar of hope

Byron Dudley Byron Dudley

In 1995, Byron Dudley decided to retire early from his 30-year career in education and devote full attention to his love of photography. He was interrupted when he found a malignant tumor in his armpit, which turned out to be a recurrence of a melanoma from a few years earlier. After having the tumor removed, Byron went through a long and difficult year of taking Intron A, a drug which caused him to be very sick.

The treatments left Byron sick and depressed. "Others may care, but they don't really understand what it's like to battle cancer and how awful that battle can be, even if you end up winning it," he says.

Byron turned to his wife, Nancy, and golden retriever, McKenzie, to keep him company on his journey to recovery. With all the physical and emotional side effects taking their toll, he tried to focus on taking things moment by moment, one day at a time.

After the doctors declared him cancer free, Byron came up with the idea to produce a 2008 Calendar of Hope for a medical center in Oregon. The calendar featured his landscape photos, along with some of the thoughts he had recorded in his journal as he went through cancer treatment. Byron's intention with this gift was to renew hope and inspire others who have been touched by the disease, because, he says, "hope is essential in the will to live."

Every day
is just another
blessing.

The calendar was very well received, and it was distributed by the medical center to 2,500 people battling cancer throughout central and western Oregon.

Byron now believes that life is good, and he feels that he's very fortunate. "At my best, I am a more patient person, patient with myself and with others," he says. "Now that I'm 73 years old, every day is just another blessing. I'm learning to become a fly fisherman. I'm still planting trees. I'm looking forward to tomorrow!"



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Minnie Hines-Chen


Living and loving every day

Minnie Hines-Chen Minnie Hines-Chen

"Women your age don't get breast cancer," someone told Minnie Hines-Chen when she found a lump in her breast during her first year of college. But at the end of her second year, she was diagnosed with the disease. And just a few weeks later, she was accepted into nursing school.

Determined not to waste energy on anger, fear, or resentment, Minnie chose to have a bilateral mastectomy and an intense chemotherapy regimen so she could get back on track with schooling as soon as possible. "There was only room for one enemy in this battle," she says, "and I knew I needed all my strength to conquer it."

"Being only 20 years old, all the breast cancer survivors I met were older. But it was nice," she says, "because I had strong ladies to look up to, and our shared experience opened up doors and relationships that I never knew existed."

Minnie also had good friends keeping her busy, and her strong will helped her mom keep the faith that her daughter would make it through.

I’m here and able
and that’s what
matters most.

As soon as she was able, Minnie began telling her story and educating others about her experience. She began speaking at conferences and became a Reach to Recovery volunteer to encourage newly diagnosed patients.

Minnie says that she still deals with the stigma associated with cancer. "So many people are uneducated about the disease and the wonderful people who are fighting it every day," she says. "I'm glad I can bring wisdom to those around me. I still have scars from my chemo port, mastectomy, and reconstruction. But I'm here and able, and that's what matters most."

Minnie reached her goal of becoming a nurse and always keeps her positive attitude, despite the long-term effects of her cancer treatment. "I have to take tamoxifen daily, get monthly injections, and am in artificial menopause," she explains. "I can't have children, which puts a damper on my dreams. But until I learn what God has planned for me, I will keep serving others with compassion, laughing with my friends and family, and living for this moment every day."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Staci Wright


Helping kids regain their self image

Staci Wright Staci Wright

Staci Wright was in the eighth grade when she began having terrible headaches. The 13-year-old girl had been healthy, happy, and active all her life, playing soccer since kindergarten. But life changed overnight when she was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, in her skull.

The treatment was 10 months of chemotherapy, along with 5 weeks of radiation. "For me, the hardest part of the cancer battle was that my pain was hurting my whole family," she recalls. "It put so much stress on my parents and older brother. Luckily my sister was too young to really realize what was going on."

During it all, she tried to stay positive and upbeat, doing her best to live life as a normal kid. The support of her family and friends helped her get through many painful times during the year. But even so, there were days when she felt overwhelmed.

"Sometimes it felt like I was all by myself in this battle," she says. "I realized others couldn't fathom what I was going through, and so there were times when I just wanted to be left alone."

Hair loss from chemotherapy isn't easy for any patient. But for a teenage girl, it can be devastating. Staci felt sad and depressed with losing her hair and didn't want to go to school. "I had a really hard time with my hair loss. But there was nothing I could do about it except move on to more important things, like surviving," she says. Unfortunately Katie's radiation killed all the hair cells on a patch of skin on the back of her head, causing her hair loss to be permanent.

Fortunately her mother, Debbie, learned of a hair system that stays in place, made of real hair attached to material that looks like a scalp. Staci loved her new hair but was concerned about the other kids she met at the children's hospital who were still dealing with baldness. "It's tough for people my age to lose their hair," she says. "They lose their self-esteem with it."

Life is something
that can’t be
taken for granted.

That's when Staci and Debbie decided to do something to help these kids. They established the Angel Hair Foundation, a non-profit organization that purchases hair systems for kids and teens. Through hard work and getting the word out, the foundation is thriving and helping kids with cancer everywhere feel better about losing their hair.

Staci is now doing well, playing soccer, hanging out with her friends, and attending the University of Oregon. She believes she'll always have insecurities about her permanent hair loss but trusts that she'll know how to deal with them when they arise. She's excited about what life has to bring to her and plans to become a dietician. More important, she knows that true friends will love her no matter what her hair looks like.

"To me, life is something that can't be taken for granted. I can't be that little shy girl that doesn't push the limit every once in a while," she says. "I often think about how cancer affected my life, about how I developed as a person through this experience. Cancer made me realize what is important in life and made me the more mature person I am today.  Carpé diem!"



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Gary Bonacker


Biking for life

Gary Bonacker Gary Bonacker

"I love life and do everything I can to live each day better than the day before. I know I sound like a greeting card," Gary Bonacker says, "but it's a good way to live."

In the spring of 2003, Gary was diagnosed with a stage 2 brain tumor. But just 10 months after surgery that removed only half of the tumor, Gary rode alongside Lance Armstrong at the Ride for the Roses cycling event in Austin, Texas.

"It was something I'll remember for the rest of my life," Gary says. It inspired him to go home to Bend, Oregon, and start his own cycling event to raise money for cancer. The Tour des Chutes has grown from 750 riders in 2005 to over 1,100 riders for the 2010 ride. The money raised during the event helps fund the cancer survivorship program at St. Charles Cancer Center, which provides medical care for many of the cancer patients in Bend and other nearby communities.

The years since have not been easy. Gary was diagnosed with his brain tumor in 2003, and he still battles it every day. He requires ongoing treatment to slow the growth of the tumor and is on anti-seizure medicines. With fatigue and multiple health problems, he has had to limit his work a great deal.

It took cancer to make me look at my life and how
I should live it.

"There's not a day that I don't go into a dark place, thinking about things I might miss," he says. "But my family, workplace, and friends, and my event help me through it. My other coping strategy is to read about research and learn everything that I can about my disease. I've surprised doctors with information they weren't even aware of.

"I have heard people with cancer say it is a gift," he jokes. "Well, I would take that gift back, if possible."

Gary continues to do his best and move on with his life. Besides planning his annual fundraiser, he says that spending time with his family, gardening, and fishing are his best coping strategies. And, of course, cycling.

"What's sad is that it took getting cancer to make me look at my life and how I should live it," Gary says. "We take a lot for granted. But I don't any longer."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Katie Strumpf


Sharing her stories

Katie Strumpf Katie Strumpf

When Katie Strumpf was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 10, her parents were wise enough to look at the different protocols of the clinical trial she had joined. After examining their options, they insisted Katie be placed into a group where the treatment wouldn't affect her fine motor skills. Now she is healthy and 31 years old and grateful for all the research they did. She remembers the experience clearly.

"I followed my parents' lead, in that I tried to be positive and understand my treatment," she says. "One of my coping strategies was to remind myself that, although cancer was forcing me to grow up a lot faster than I wanted to, going through the treatment would give me the opportunity to grow up and at some point, just get to be a kid."

Members of Katie's family came from near and far to support her. They brought her favorite foods and games to help her feel normal.

Having cancer made me appreciate life…I’m a stronger and better person.

The hardest part was missing a lot of school, she recalls, and not getting the opportunity to feel like a regular kid. Spending so much time in the hospital took a toll on her, too. And getting sick from chemotherapy was exhausting, especially at such a young age.

During treatment, Katie told her parents that someday she would write a book for children with cancer. Sure enough, after graduating from college, she wrote I Never Signed Up For This! An Upfront Guide to Dealing with Cancer at a Young Age,an easy-to-read book for kids with cancer.

Today, Katie's life is still very much focused on cancer issues, particularly the fight against pediatric cancer. She gives public readings of her book and for a while worked at a nonprofit organization that helps seriously ill children and their families. Unfortunately, she lost her husband, Adam, to a brain tumor last summer, so she is sharing her thoughts about surviving as a young widow on her blog, Sleepless in the South. She plans to write a book about their experience and the impact of losing a spouse to cancer at such a young age.

On the last page of her first book, Katie summed up her current view of life in this way:

I know you probably think I am crazy, but having cancer made me fully appreciate life. I go after what I want in life and believe I am a stronger and better person. Of course there are times when my life is uncertain and I am unsure of my path. When I'm hesitant to take that next step, I look over my shoulder and she's always there. That young bald girl with cancer dares me to give up, to not take that next step . So I put on some red lipstick, toss my hair over my shoulder, and take that next step. I owe it to myself, and the cancer survivor that I am."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Ben Moon


The picture of balance

Ben Moon Ben Moon

Ben Moon, then a 29-year-old rock climber, surfer, and adventure photographer, assumed that the blood in his stool and his ongoing fatigue were due to the rigors of traveling or to a virus he had picked up along the way. Luckily, a wise nurse-practitioner suggested that he get a colonoscopy.

"I was only 29, and a lot of people my age don't get scoped," he says. "The fact that I got sent for a colonoscopy saved my life."

Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. After undergoing radiation all summer and then chemotherapy, Ben had surgery to remove his rectum, leaving him with a colostomy. Eight more rounds of chemotherapy left him exhausted and feeling toxic.

"It was pretty hard emotionally to deal with that kind of a change to my body, especially in my late 20s," he says.

It was difficult for him to deal with the colostomy at first, but Ben researched the procedure and realized he could irrigate daily, having far greater control. He started rock climbing again just weeks after surgery, eager to get outdoors and test his new limits.

"The thing that helped me the most was focusing on one day at a time and not looking too far ahead," he says. "I never let a feeling of defeat creep in; I tried my best to stay positive. Seeing the brave smiles of those who were much older and physically weaker than me in the infusion room was a huge boost."

Ben was lucky to have wonderful friends and family who gave him ongoing support. They encouraged him to keep up his active lifestyle, helped with meals, sent cards and notes, and even held a silent auction to raise money for his medical bills. "They wouldn't let me lie around and feel sorry for myself," he says.

Cancer taught me how to thrive even through the tougher times of life.

His photography clients were very understanding, too, and made sure he had work to do. With everyone's help, Ben made it through his treatments and got "back up on the wall" with a chemo pump line dangling and a new lease on life.

Now age 36, Ben is working with a company that makes ostomy supplies, helping them improve their products so that people who have the procedure and who are young and active can feel confident with their condition. "I'm very aware of how I treat my body," he says. "I try to practice yoga, climb, surf, and bike often. So I know how important it is to have a sense of control, trusting that you can live your life the way you want to."

In a world where most people aren't comfortable discussing colostomies and the challenges that come with them, Ben encourages questions and welcomes the opportunity to help others through his Web site. "I feel the only residual challenge from the cancer is living with a colostomy, but I haven't let it slow me down," he says.

Surviving cancer has brought Ben closer to his friends and family. He believes this greater connection caused a shift in his photography, too, helping him to capture human emotion more clearly in his subjects. "I feel more focused and driven to improve and grow as an artist," he says. "Cancer helped me appreciate those I love in my life even more, and taught me how to thrive even through the tougher times of life."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Tamika Felder


Survivor and advocate

Tamika Felder Tamika Felder

Diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 25, Tamika Felder had to deal with the stigma of a disease linked to an STD.

"I was surrounded by people who were very supportive and wonderful. But there were also a few people who said cruel things because my cancer was linked to a sexually transmitted virus," she recalls. "That was painful, and those people either ended up being cut out of my life or their place in my life was minimal."

Tamika had to have her cervix and uterus removed, and had chemotherapy and radiation to kill all the cancer cells. To this day, the most difficult part of the experience was realizing she'd never be able to give birth to a child. But financial strain was also an issue, due to all the medical expenses. Before cancer, she had been making a name for herself in the broadcasting industry, but after her diagnosis she was unable to pay her bills. With her career on hold, issues with money, and her social outlets affected, Tamika gave up on life.

"It's so easy to give up," she says. "I remember kissing my mom and my best friend goodbye in the hospital days after my surgery. The pain was unbearable and I just wanted it to be over with. But they wouldn't let me give up. They provided the strength I needed to continue fighting. And eventually, I realized cancer didn't have to be a death sentence."

Tamika made the decision to face the disease head on, and she fought for her life as hard as she could. If she lost her life, she decided, it wouldn't be because she gave up. Today, 10 years after her surgery and treatment, Tamika is once again working in broadcasting, as a television reporter and producer in Washington, D.C.

"I had an amazing support network and knew that I was in good hands with my health care," she says. "So my coping strategies became research and understanding for my disease. The more I learned, the more I was determined to beat it."

I know that tomorrow is truly not promised. That
life can change in an instant, and that it’s up to me to make a difference.

But at the same time, she's thankful to be here every day, aware that tomorrow isn't guaranteed. She started Tamika and Friends, an advocacy organization, to offer financial help to women with cervical cancer and to educate people about the disease. Tamika now reaches women on a national level, getting the word out and giving support.

"Cancer completely changed my life," she says. "Once I finally embraced it and became a cancer advocate, it truly healed me, inside and out. My cancer experience has defined who I am now as a person. I know that tomorrow is truly not promised. That life can change in an instant, and that it's up to me to make a difference."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.

Matthew Zachary


Composing a support network for young adults

Matthew Zachary Matthew Zachary

Matthew Zachary started playing piano at age 11. He wanted to be a Hollywood composer and studied music in college. But in 1995, when Matt was a senior, he began losing motor coordination in his left hand and had to give up his musical ambitions. A massive tumor that generally occurs in children under the age of 6 was found in his brain.

Matt had brain surgery and extensive radiation but refused chemotherapy because he wanted to be able to continue to play the piano. One of the drugs he was offered would have caused peripheral neuropathy, a side effect he wasn’t willing to endure for the rest of his life. Music was his anchor, and he made every effort to sit down at the piano and play, even if only just for minutes a day.

"In spite of losing the ability to use my left hand, music was a grounding force in a sea of chaos," he says. "It was the only thing I had control over, and it made me happy."

Cancer gave me the confidence to take risks,
and the belief that I could accomplish anything.

But, once he finished treatment, he felt jaded and angry. There were no support groups or internet resources for people like him, cancer survivors in their 20s. And at the time, the word survivorship didn't really exist within the oncology community. After surgery and treatments, the doctors gave him little guidance or planning for what to do next in life.

"I know all about that isolation and fear. The feeling of, 'What am I going to do for the rest of my life?'" he says. "I had lots of love and support from my friends and family, but I was desperate for peer support from other young adult patients and survivors who could relate to exactly what I was going through."

As timing would have it, after making a career in advertising, Matt recorded a CD of his own compositions to help him heal and put closure to his cancer. Through a series of events, the project evolved into his becoming an advocate and spokesman for young adults with cancer. Now his organization, the I’m Too Young For This! Cancer Foundation, helps people in their 20s and 30s who have the disease get the support and information he felt he didn’t have. He is also passionate about calling attention to the lack of clinical research in this population.

"Cancer made me a better person," he explains, "in that it gave me permission to live life to the fullest, the confidence to take risks, and the belief that I could accomplish anything."



The story on this page was first featured in the book Cancer Adventures, by Marlys Johnson (Copyright © 2008 by Marlys Johnson). Both the story and the photograph are owned by the author and the survivor and are used with permission.