Celebrating Survival

Larry and Jean Smith share much more than a fervent faith in God, a 53-year marriage, four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Both are colon cancer survivors.

Jean, now 76, was diagnosed at age 16. It was in 1956, a time when cancer was a hidden disease - a time when neither patients nor families were informed. Back then, it was a death sentence. Several surgeries and a few years later, Jean learned that she had cancer as a teen. When she asked her mother why she wasn’t told, her mother simply said, “you didn’t ask.”

Armed with the knowledge that she had cancer years earlier, Jean decided to do her homework, and the American Cancer Society proved a valuable resource. Now a 60-year survivor, Jean has regular check-ups.

Larry, 79, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in 1999. He had surgery to remove the cancerous growths, but opted for no chemotherapy or radiation until he did a little research on his own.

Months later, he returned to the oncologist, and was told it was too late for chemotherapy, that treatment was generally done within a few weeks of surgery, and that he now had only a 10% survival rate. When Larry asked why it was too late, he was told, “I don’t know ... that’s just the way things are done.”

Larry took matters into his own hands. He began taking Echinacea to boost his immune system, eating nutritious meals, and working on improving his mental outlook.

Still going strong 15 years later, Larry sees his oncologist once or twice a year, has lab work performed twice yearly, and undergoes a colonoscopy every three years. While he relied upon the American Cancer Society for answers, he credits his faith in God for helping him pull through.

The Smiths have been involved with the Mountain Area American Cancer Society Relay for Life since 2000.

This annual event will be held 9 a.m. to midnight, Saturday, May, 14, at Yosemite High’s Badger Stadium. The theme this year is “Star Wars: May the Cure be With You.”

One of the day’s highlights is the Candlelight Luminaria Ceremony, which is often teeming with emotions. It remembers those who lost their battle, honors those who are currently fighting cancer, and celebrates those who have survived. It’s an opportunity for attendees to work through their grief, and to find some hope.

One participant looking to energize her hope is Sharon Stull, who continues in her battle. She has metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her lungs and bones. Originally diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 2010, Stull underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for 10 months.

In remission for a short two years, cancer was discovered in her lungs in February 2013. She is now at stage IV lung cancer, has been in ongoing treatment, including regular scans about every four months, and has been seeing her oncologist every three weeks.

“Several things have been key in helping me through this,” Stull said, “but the major factor has been my strong faith in Jesus Christ. If He has allowed this into my life, then I know for certain that He will walk with me each step of the way.”

She also credits her “supportive and loving” husband, and a large network of family and friends who pray for her and with her, cook at times, keep her company at treatments, and encourage her.

“After you get over the initial shock and feeling certain that you’re going to die ... and you will get over that feeling ... find the best oncologist for you and your cancer, and share the news with people you love. Don’t keep it a secret. People want to help ... let them be that blessing to you,” Stull added.

She marks her second year as a Relay for Life participant, and loves the fact that the event raises money to find new drugs to battle cancer, believing that chances for survival are on the rise.

Other survivors

Survivor Teri Martinez has been cancer free for five years. At 43, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“Life was good, my son was in college and my daughter was getting ready to begin high school in a couple of months,” Martinez said. I was the president of the PTA at my daughter’s middle school, and I was the assistant coach of her softball team. I played softball with the Adult City Leagues year round. I also worked full-time in the produce industry. I was very involved with life, and thought, how can this be happening to me?”

Once her thyroid was removed, she underwent five months of treatment.

“I took a radioactive iodine pill,” Martinez continued, “and from the time it hit my mouth, I couldn’t be around any person or animal for 10 days. I had to be completely alone and isolated in a special hospital room. Nowadays, you are allowed to go home, but you must still follow these strict rules.”

Martinez will take a thyroid hormone pill for the rest of her life, and has bloodwork done every six months. She is Hypothyroid and Hypoparathyroid, with issues of dry eyes, dry mouth, swelling of the salivary glands, and tenderness and swelling in the neck. Still, she is grateful to wake every morning, saying, “I can deal with all this ... I’m still here celebrating all survivors.”

Her “village” - parents, children, sister and close friends - were instrumental supporters during her journey. Martinez, who was diagnosed in February, had her thyroid removed in March. While recovering from surgery, she looked up Relay For Life, and created her team - Teri’s Butterflies - which joined in the Salinas Relay for Life that June. While she has participated for 20 years, her team has taken part in the event for the last five years.

Just recently Kathy McLane, 59, was diagnosed with skin cancer. Her daughter, Kristen Blea, who is a registered nurse at Valley Children’s Hospital, was not only her “rock,” but a helpful resource.

“When I initially heard those words, ‘It’s cancer,’ I really didn’t hear much of anything else the doctor said,” McLane explained. “Kristen was able to answer many questions that arose after I left my doctor’s office.”

Blea was the first to notice the cancerous growth a mere month before her wedding. The pair were shopping in Macy’s for mother-of-the-bride dresses. When McLane tried on a dress with a v-neck, Blea spotted the growth on her mom’s upper chest. And so, in between finalizing wedding plans, McLane underwent surgery.

A few days following the first surgery, McLane was told that she needed a second surgery because all the cancer wasn’t removed. Now she was frightened, believing the surgery should have been routine, a done deal. This time around she asked questions, such as ‘would they get it the second time around, and how would they know they had.’

It turned out that all the cancer was removed during the second surgery, and McLane found a beautiful lace dress - perfect for her daughter’s wedding and perfect for covering her scar.

“The wedding was beautiful and six months later, it seems like the cancer never happened,” McLane added. “I now go to the doctor for every little thing ... probably more than I should, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

She was treated for four months, has been cancer free for two months, and sees her dermatologist every three months.

Along with Linda Maddox, McLane is a Survivor Committee co-chair for this year’s Relay for Life. It’s not only a day set aside to remember and honor, but a renewed commitment to continue in the fight to “kill cancer.”

“Let’s find a cure,” Jean Smith said, “and make cancer a disease of the past.”

Martinez seemed to sum it up for the other survivors, who nodded in agreement: “I want my children’s grandchildren to never hear the word cancer.”

For details, signing up as a team, as a team member, as a survivor or to make a donation:

Survivor Committee Co-chairs, Kathy McLane, (559) 760-0006, or Linda Maddox (559) 760-2614.

Some stats

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, affecting one in five Americans. There are several forms of the disease - basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas - which generally turn up on sun-exposed skin and are the easiest to cure.

Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year 136,830 people will be diagnosed and 50,310 will die from this disease.