Cancer survivors celebrate defying illness

June 06, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

Being seen.

That was the point yesterday at the Fifth Regiment Armory. Being seen walking and talking and smiling and enjoying a muggy Sunday afternoon in Baltimore.

In other words, being alive.

For two hours, the armory showcased defiance to a deadly disease. In Baltimore's first celebration of National Cancer Survivors Day, 1,000 survivors and their families assembled under red, white and blue bunting to munch on hot dogs, listen to music and thumb their noses at an illness too readily perceived as unconquerable.

"I think it's really important to see how many survivors there are," said Carole Seddon, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago at age 51. "There's a myth that when you're diagnosed with cancer one day, you're dead the next."

Ms. Seddon knew the myth was untrue from experience. A social worker, she is the director of cancer counseling at Johns Hopkins Hospital and has seen long-term survivors in her job.

After her diagnosis, she found herself going through all the stages she had seen in her own patients. "There was grief, fear and then the joy that I was still here."

She said it has been a comfort to her to meet long-term survivors. "It's important to know one survives this disease," she said. "I met a woman this morning diagnosed 30 years ago and another 54 years ago. The second was told she could never have children. She was here with her daughter."

The American Cancer Society and 12 area hospitals sponsored the event to publicize the more than 7 million Americans alive five years or more after a cancer diagnosis.

Nancy-Bets Hay, diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago at age 46, said her cancer radically changed her life, but in ways one wouldn't expect. After her treatment, she abruptly quit her job as a private school admissions officer, returned to graduate school and is now working as an oncology social worker in the University of Maryland Cancer Center.

"It came to me in a flash, one day I just knew," she said. "It was like a calling, and I've never wavered."

Like other survivors, Mrs. Hay says her face-off with cancer helped her appreciate more what is important in her life.

"You learn to let go of the things that don't matter," she said. "A clean kitchen isn't so important. Relationships are."

Moments later, Joann Kappeler of Glen Arm repeated the same sentiment. On her lapel, she wore a button: "I am a 33-year survivor."

She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer while carrying her third child. After one surgery and then another, she has never had a recurrence. She wouldn't have believed it in the beginning.

"My first thought was: 'Who's going to raise my children?' " she recalled.

But her confrontation with cancer was not over. At age 13, her fourth and last child, Heidi, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, which required her to undergo surgery and radiation.

Now married, Heidi Biffl, 30, recalled being too young at the time to fear her death. "At 13, you want to look like everyone else," she said. "Down to 68 pounds and with no hair, I didn't look like anyone else."

She was befriended then by an older girl, who had survived cancer and gone on to become a homecoming queen. "She was healthy, gorgeous and vivacious," said Mrs. Biffl, who buys and sells for a Washington boutique. "Whatever she had, I wanted."

After her treatment, though, she counseled another girl newly diagnosed with cancer. That girl did not survive.

Cancer also took Mrs. Biffl's father seven years ago as well as other relatives. She said she came to yesterday's event to remind herself that people do survive cancer.

All lessons about cancer, of course, are relative. While the gathering was upbeat with balloons and jugglers and musicians, their encounters with cancer left many of those celebrating qualified in their thoughts about the future.

"How am I doing?" said Steve Jacobs, a 48-year-old urologist diagnosed with tonsil cancer three years ago. "How do you ever know? I'll say fine, though, until my next cancer comes along."

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