Cancer Survivors Prove Deadly Disease Can Be Beat

October 28, 1990|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

Who could blame Frances R. Conaway if she equated cancer with death?

She watched the disease kill her parents. She knows it means pain and a lot of suffering.

But she also knows it can be beat.

Conaway is 60 and has survived two bouts with cancer. She owns a business, cares for her husband, nurtures her grandchildren and volunteers to help others with the disease.

She does a lot of hoping and praying, but she also does a lot of smiling and living.

"When you first hear you have cancer, you're sort of devastated.

You think, 'It can't be me,' " said Conaway of Taylorsville.

The disease hit her hard. Thirteen years ago, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Seven years later, she had breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy.

"I always knew I was a high risk, but I always thought I'd be an exception," she said.

When the shock wore off after the first diagnosis, she asked her doctor about her chances for recovery.

"The feeling I had was, 'I've got to survive,' " Conaway said.

More and more people survive cancer now than when her parents had the disease. Four out of 10 Americans who get cancer this year will be alive five years from now. Thirty years ago, only one in three would have lived, American Cancer Society studies show. The 7 percent gain represents about 69,000 people this year.

Doctors consider cancer cured if a person lives five years without symptoms following treatment.

Kathleen H. Crum of Westminster has reached that goal. Five and a half years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer; today she's a professional clown.

When she dons a long-haired red wig, a bright red, yellow and blue suit and long, red shoes, Crum is "Kay-Cee."

After spending most of her life as a hairdresser, she decided she needed a change. The decision wasn't directly related to her cancer, but the laughing and joking that go with the job help her cope, she said.

"It helps me do what I want to do and that's make the best of every day," said Crum, 41. "Every day when you go out to work as a clown, you know you're going to have a good day because everybody loves a clown."

About one in every 10 women will develop breast cancer, American Cancer Society studies have found. But the survival rate approaches 100 percent if the cancer is caught early and treated.

Sharon K. Staub, an oncology nurse at Carroll County General Hospital in Westminster, said, "Early detection is the key to survival with all cancer."

While many types of cancer are easier to detect now with advanced technology, lung cancer remains a killer. The five-year survival rate is only 13 percent because diagnosis is difficult in early stages of the disease, the American Cancer Society says.

Donald J. Gilmore, a recently retired Carroll County Circuit Court judge, lived with pain for about a year before knowing the real cause.

"When I was sitting in court, I was sitting holding my stomach" because that helped ease the pain, he said.

He had been to a doctor who told him he had an ulcer. He doesn't blame doctors for not finding his cancer earlier.

"I wasn't totally cooperative. You don't tell doctors everything," he said, adding he knew X-rays and other tests he probably would have to undergo would be "brutal."

Last March, when the pain became so severe he couldn't sleep, his wife drove him home non-stop from a judicial conference in Miami, and doctors sent him straight to the operating room. A malignant tumor in his colon was completely blocking his intestine.

"I came out of that hospital an old man," said Gilmore, 58, who lost 35 pounds because of the illness. "I looked in the mirror and cringed.

My ears looked huge. My muscle tone was gone."

Today, he has joined a law office in Towson, Baltimore County, and receives chemotherapy treatments once a week. The treatments leave him tired and with a metallic taste in his mouth, but he hasn't lost his hair, his complexion is ruddy and he's gained back the weight.

"I don't have cancer. My cancer is gone," he said.

Now, he urges his three brothers and one sister to have regular checkups. Their father died of lung cancer at age 61, but so far Gilmore is the only sibling with the disease.

"It changed my outlook. You suddenly become aware your days are numbered," he said.

When he first learned he had cancer, he said he worried about his house needing to be painted and that the driveway needed work. After recovering from surgery, he dived into a list of household chores because he wanted everything to be in good shape for his family if he died, he said.

These days, Gilmore said, his two children kid him that he's back to normal because he's started procrastinating again.

Gilmore said he got through his illness with a positive outlook and support from his family.

"Why worry? It's not in my nature," he said. "You've really got to want to live, and you've got to work at it," he said.

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