Together We Can -- Newsletter of the Joan Karnell Cancer Center

Fall 2002

Living Each Day Fully
Herbal Therapies:
Are They For Everyone?
Celebrate Life: Survivors Day '02
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Living Each Day Fully

The speech below was delivered by cancer survivor, Lynne Caplan, on National Cancer Survivors Day on June 9, 2002.

It is an honor and a blessing to be here today – to share my experience, strength and hope with you. It's great to be alive! Besides, I love any gathering where you get applause just for having a disease!

It seems so fitting to be celebrating life, celebrating cancer survival today – the day of the First Union US Pro Cycling Championship and the Ladies First Union Liberty Classic, otherwise known as the “Tour de Manayunk.”

I am reminded, once again, to be inspired by Lance Armstrong. To remember that I am not a statistic. That even if the odds of survival to five years are low, there are people who comprise that small percentage. When I was given such awful statistics, I immediately told the doctors that it just wasn't acceptable. And I set out to prove their numbers wrong. I calculated everything by how old my nephews were. And I knew I had to stick around for all the milestones ahead in their lives.

On March 31, 2001, I registered for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. I had never participated in an event like that, and I thought it would be fun as well as worthwhile. Three days later, on April 3, 2001, after nine months or so of complaints, I was sent for an abdominal pelvic ultrasound. On April 6, I picked up a copy of those test results. On April 10, 2001, I saw my internist. On April 11, 2001, I saw my gynecologist at 11:30. By 2:30 that afternoon, I was sitting in a gynecologic oncologist's office learning about the surgery I would need to treat my ovarian cancer.

I had heard that awful word; that word that every person dreads hearing – Cancer – I had Stage IV ovarian cancer. And the doctors were all very grim. On the 12th of April, I had a 2 1/2 hour MRI, on the 13th a 1 1/2 hour MRI with contrast and two doctor's appointments. On the 19th of April I went in for a pre-surgery colonoscopy. And on April 24, 2001, I was admitted to the hospital for surgery.

I had turned 50 years old on April 6, the day I picked up the original ultrasound test results. That was a birthday present I'll never forget. I spent the next twelve days in Graduate Hospital, pretty much not knowing what was going on. My surgery had been far from successful. The cancer was all over and only my ovaries had been removed. I was discharged on May 5, 2001.

Then I came to Pennsylvania Hospital and met wonderful Dr. Mason, my medical oncologist. Dr. Mason and I met on May 9th and I began my chemotherapy on May 10, 2001.

As the Grateful Dead song states,” What a long strange trip it's been.” I remember those first feelings of shock and disbelief, of anger – not because I had cancer. After all, the question, isn't “Why me” but “Why not me” – But anger because I felt that the doctors hadn't been paying attention.

I had feelings of confusion, fear, panic, but I didn't really have a lot of time to spend on all those feelings. Once the cancer ball got rolling, it picked up momentum and I was carried along. I realized, very early on, that I had two choices, one was to sit in the corner and feel sorry for myself – to be a victim; the other was to fight for my life. And I chose to fight.

About 19 years ago, under radically different circumstances, I almost died. At that time, I had no real desire to go on; nor did I have much courage or strength. But I have learned a lot in those intervening years, much that has helped me to face and cope with the challenge of living with cancer. This time, when my life was at stake, I wanted to live. And I was willing to do whatever I had to do, to endure whatever I had to, in order to stay alive. And as everyone with cancer knows, sometimes you have to endure a lot.

The two most valuable tools I possessed were a sense of humor and strong faith in God. I had been having frequent, overwhelming hot flashes for a long time. But once my ovaries were removed, I became a veritable firestorm. My most frequent utterance being, “Oh my God, I'm so hot.” I could have turned fanning into an Olympic Event. And with hot flashes like these, wearing a wig was out of the question. Besides, my nephew, David, told me that if I wore a wig, I wouldn't be his aunt anymore. And I certainly couldn't let that happen.

Going bald and going wig-less had some unexpected positive benefits. I met lots of wonderful people and had incredible support from dozens of strangers. People who took time to stop and say that they had battled cancer or that someone they loved was battling. Some people stopped to say they would pray for me – and I needed all the prayers I could get. I began to ask people to put me on the prayer lists at their churches or synagogues. A friend even sent my name to some missionaries in Africa! I didn't care where the prayers came from, as long as they kept coming.

And I tried to remember that God wouldn't give me any more than I could handle on any day. I met with Dr. Randall for the first time on September 11, 2001. My mother called me in the morning to tell me the country was being attacked. I turned on the television to be sure she wasn't being overly dramatic. And then, because I had to, I went to my appointment to discuss my second surgery. I had completed six rounds of chemo by this time. The country was being attacked by terrorists and I was facing my own terror. As I sat in Dr. Randall's office – those awful images flashing across the TV screen – I realized fully and completely that having cancer was not the worst thing that could happen.

Thousands of people died that day. Ordinary people who got up and went to work and never had a chance. I was still alive. I still had a chance. And my determination to fight became even stronger. I wondered, in quiet moments, how many of the victims of the terrorist attacks would have readily changed places with me?

It's not always easy and it's certainly not always fun doing battle with cancer. The surgery, the tests, the chemo, the shots, the appointments – it seems never ending. But the people I met – my doctors, the nurses, the entire staff at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center became a family to me. They always had a hug and candy.

And truthfully, some days I came not for the chemo, but for the candy. I had a lot of support – family, friends, professionals and fellow cancer survivors – who stood by me even when I didn't know they were there. It's been a truly amazing experience. Probably not one I'd have chosen for myself, but one I have learned so very much from – about cancer, about myself and about the preciousness of life.

I was so flattered to be asked to speak as a survivor today. After all, my last of ten chemos was only in January. But once you enter the world of cancer, survival takes on a new definition. Survival is every day that you are alive once you've been diagnosed.


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