For these survivors, cancer became the source of valuable life lessons,
including the power of hope and a deep appreciation of life.
By Linda Melone, CSCS
Bershan Shaw, 45
New York, NY
Survived: Breast Cancer
When Bershan Shaw’s doctor diagnosed her with stage IV breast cancer at the age of 33, he told her she had three months to live. He then asked her if she believed in miracles. She did and still does.
Now, seven years later, she proved her doctor wrong by experiencing a “miracle” and far outliving his prediction. Although Shaw’s mother died of breast cancer at age 59, when Bershan found a lump in her breast she was not worried. “No one has cancer at 33,” she exclaimed. Her diagnosis was a huge wakeup call. “I prayed and meditated and changed my attitude,” she said.
In addition to her doctor’s prescribed traditional cancer treatments—radiation and chemotherapy—she took a proactive approach and began reading all she could about healthy eating and exercise. “I changed my life completely. I stopped eating meat and dairy and eventually went vegan,” she says, although she occasionally eats fish. She also began taking supplements, including turmeric (a spice known for its anti-inflammatory properties) and pau d’arco (an herb reportedly beneficial for easing chemotherapy symptoms and for diminishing tumors).
In addition to her dietary changes, she practices Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional form of healing that originated in India. Every three months Shaw detoxes with a vegetable-and-juice fast for a weekend or will go away on a retreat where she eats only raw foods. Her doctor said she currently has “no evidence of disease.” “It’s ongoing, you can never take your foot off the pedal,” Shaw says. “You have to constantly be in the driver’s seat of your own health.”
Suzanne Garber, 45
Survived: Ovarian Cancer
Suzanne Garber envisioned a very special wedding night on December 29, 2001, with her new husband, Chris. Since they held off on being intimate until after their wedding, Garber expected some pain the first time. “But it was excruciatingly painful for me,” she says, “beyond what I would have thought.” She was not immediately worried. But the pain continued. Garber also noticed her pants weren’t buttoning, and she felt bloated and constipated.
At this point her husband suggested seeing his longtime primary care physician to rule out anything serious. They were floored when the doctor ordered an immediate ultrasound. He’d found a large mass in her abdomen. They were in the middle of closing on their home and canceled the closing to get an ultrasound that same day. The ultrasound revealed a rapidly growing malignant tumor. Within a few weeks Garber underwent an oophorectomy to remove her ovaries.
In the four months between her pre-wedding gynecological check and her surgery, “the tumor had grown to eight pounds,” says Garber, “but was miraculously completely contained within itself.” Because of this she did not need radiation or chemotherapy. “I was diagnosed with Stage IA ovarian cancer—something almost unheard of with ovarian cancer. More than 60% of women with ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until stage IV when treatment is nearly impossible.”
Garber credits her early diagnosis to being in tune with her body and vague symptoms such as bloating, painful sex and constipation. “Surviving cancer gives me the daily perspective to live for today, not put off the things I want to do, people I want to love, and places I want to visit,” Garber says.
Richard London, 57
Survived: Prostate Cancer
Receiving a cancer diagnosis was bad enough for Richard London, but getting the bad news over the phone from his urologist while at work made it particularly tough—especially since he had no idea his doctor suspected he had cancer. “The word ‘cancer’ never even occurred to me,” London says. “I just had to deal with it at that time.”
London knew a hereditary factor increased his risk. London’s father was 65 the first time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer returned two more times over 14 years before his father eventually passed away from it. Most doctors recommend annual PSA screenings for men beginning at age 50 unless the man is at higher risk through heredity or ethnic heritage (African American men tend to be higher risk, for example) or if cancer runs in the family, as it does in London’s case.
London was age 40 when his father was diagnosed, and he began getting PSA tests at age 41. When, at his annual checkup at age 47, a blood test revealed an elevated PSA level, his doctor scheduled the biopsy that showed he had cancer. “If my father had not had cancer, I wouldn’t have had my first PSA test for three more years,” London says. “So because of my father’s cancer they caught mine early.”
Because it was a slow-moving cancer, London’s doctor told him he could wait it out. “But I wanted it out of my body,” he says. “I opted for surgery where they remove the entire prostate—no radiation. I just wanted to move on.”
Five years later his doctor declared London “cured” of prostate cancer with a PSA of zero, although he has learned to work through impotence and incontinence issues. “I’m now going on 11 years cancer-free,” he says. “Having cancer is a very emotional thing. Seek support and advice from others. You can go on and live a normal life.”
Rod Echols, 40
Survived: Colon Cancer
On June 2012 Rod Echols was alarmed when he experienced anal bleeding. His primary care physician attributed his symptoms to hemorrhoids, but when the bleeding didn’t go away two weeks later, Echols knew something else was amiss. A family history of colon cancer on both sides of his family plus an intuitive sense—“I knew deep down inside something else was wrong”—motivated Echols to schedule his own colonoscopy, although he was only 38 (colon cancer screening is not usually recommended until age 50).
A former basketball coach for 11 years, Echols had always kept very active and usually had an abundance of energy to play with his two young children, Pria, 3, and Preston, 5. As he feared, the colonoscopy revealed colon cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes: stage III.
“At that point I was in a hurry to get rid of it. When you hear ‘cancer’ you just want to get this thing out,” says Echols. Until his diagnosis he and his wife, Keisha, led a busy life and often referred to themselves as Team Echols. “The first thing you think about when you’re diagnosed is what will happen to your wife and your kids,” says Echols.
The first surgery attempt, which was similar to a colonoscopy, attempted to remove the cancer but it had already spread into the second layer of tissue, says Echols. The doctor wanted to do a second surgery, at which time Echols decided to get another opinion. He then went to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, where he was treated with radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Echols underwent his last chemo session in July 2013. His treatment plan included working with a dietician who developed a naturopathic medicine and nutrition strategy to help him through the treatments and cope with side effects. Although he went through chemotherapy and radiation concurrently, Echols continued to work full time throughout the process, which amazed even his doctors.
“I’m now getting back to my old life,” he says, “although it’s a new normal.”
Echols has some advice for others who find themselves in the same situation he was. “Listen to your body,” he says “You own it; don’t let cancer own you. Keep things as normal as possible and keep negative people away. My attitude made it a whole lot better.”
Helen Szablya, 61
Survived: Primary Peritoneal Cancer
In 2009, Helen Szablya began to notice post-menopausal spotting. She immediately scheduled an appointment with her gynecologist, who ordered a sonogram. “The film showed something but my doctor could feel nothing,” she says.
An MRI revealed an unusual type of cancer made of mucus. After an initial diagnosis of appendix cancer, the diagnosis was changed to stage IV primary peritoneal cancer (PPC) following a tissue analysis. This cancer thought to develop from the peritoneum, a thin, delicate sheet that lines the inside walls of the pelvis and abdomen while contains a fluid that prevents the abdominal organs from sticking together.
Szablya’s doctor explained her best treatment option: cytoreproductive surgery with heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy, major surgery that could take up to 18 hours, removing the affected organs followed by a hot chemotherapy bath to kill the microscopic tumors that could not be removed surgically. “My doctor gave me an 80% chance of recovery,” says Szablya, who was treated at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “We felt like we’d won the lottery. We had gone into the meeting accepting a death pronouncement only to be given hope.”
The 10-hour surgery involved removal of Szablya’s spleen, gallbladder, ovaries, uterus, appendix, fallopian tubes and part of her liver. “Remarkably, I was up out of my bed and walking a few steps within 24 hours of surgery,” she says.
Her next CT scan showed no signs of cancer. Afterward Szablya underwent chemotherapy and also went for acupuncture three times a week. Two years later, Szablya is cancer-free. “I know from firsthand experience that this disease is truly horrible, but there is hope,” she says.