Life after cancer

Survivors express varying degrees of concern about recurrence

Survivors express varying degrees of concern about recurrence

November 28, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

Hagerstown resident Toni Sollenberger thinks about it all the time.

While it has changed the way Williamsport-area resident Lauren E. Baker eats, he doesn't think about it that much anymore.

It is cancer - a disease both Sollenberger and Baker beat.

As of 2002 - the most recent year data was available, 80 percent of people diagnosed with cancer survive at least the first year after diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Sixty-five percent of people diagnosed with cancer in 1997 survive at least five years after diagnosis, according to the institute.

"Obviously, people get cured, but they can still relapse 30 years later," says Dr. Michael McCormack, an oncologist at John R. Marsh Cancer Center at Robinwood Medical Center.


There are some cancers, such as colon cancer, that after five years a person can usually be considered cancer-free, but there's still a small chance of a relapse, McCormack says.

The more time that goes by after being cured, the better the prognosis gets for remaining cancer-free, he says.

"The whole journey's tough," McCormack says.

For some people, there's a void after treatment because they are no longer doing anything, like chemotherapy, to battle cancer, he says.

"When they're doing something, they feel psychologically better," he says.

Baker is doing something.

Since learning he was cancer-free on Sept. 20, he is continuing the vegan diet that he believes cured him of the pancreatic cancer that he was told last October would kill him within 10 months. He hasn't taken a pill, not even aspirin, since January when he completed his chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

"I cut wood, split wood, mow my grass, do everything," says Baker, 68.

Since January, he also retired from his family insurance business to reduce his stress level, became more involved with his church; and travels more. He and his wife, Barbara Ann, visited the Grand Canyon and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., this fall and are looking forward to a trip to New York City.

"It has really changed my life. It really has," Baker says.

"Cancer does not scare me anymore. I live in no fear whatsoever for me or my wife," who also switched to the vegan diet, he says.

Sollenberger, 47, can't say she doesn't live in fear.

"I wonder if that's going to happen again," says Sollenberger, who became cancer-free on July 25, 2002, after having a lumpectomy and radiation treatment.

"I don't think of it every day as 'poor me' or anything. ... It just seems to come into my life every day because I'm involved in breast cancer awareness. It's not like I think, 'Oh golly. I'm going to die,'" Sollenberger says.

She no longer has the attitude, "Well, that doesn't happen to our family because it hadn't happened before," she says.

In addition to getting a mammogram at least once a year, she checks with her surgeon to see when her daughter should start getting mammograms. The answer is 10 years younger than the age Sollenberger was when diagnosed with breast cancer, which was at age 43.

Nancy Leab gave herself self examinations after having reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy of her right breast. Her follow-up care involved massaging the scar five times a day to make it go away.

"While I was doing the massage I leaned over sideways. A panic just went through my veins like ice. I was just, 'Oh my gosh.' I felt a little lump," the Waynesboro, Pa., resident says.

It was April 2005 and Leab had thought she had won her battle with cancer.

She had, but the war wasn't over.

When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2003, she had been engaged for two weeks to her good friend, Tony Leab.

He went with her to the doctor, she got a mastectomy and they ended up getting married on Virginia Beach, Va., at sunrise on April 17, 2004. After the honeymoon, she finished the chemo that had caused her to wear a wig during the wedding.

When she thought she had the cancer beat in May 2004, Leab says she felt like a little girl let out of school - free.

"I recovered. This is great. I beat this thing. Like everyone that's had breast cancer you're always looking over your shoulder to see if your enemy's returned," says Leab, 47.

"For me, my worst fear came true. It did come back," she says.

But, for 11 months Leab got to experience life after cancer and the breast cancer survivor is hopeful to do that again by next spring.

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