Cancer in for the fight of its life Survivor: Bettye Balland Griffin knows she could die any day. But that won't stop her from living well, and joining a march for a cure.

September 24, 1998|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

They call her the Energizer Bunny: Bettye Balland Griffin is one of those enviably efficient humans who can oversee two rental properties, hunt down just the right antique for an interior design client, move from a large Victorian house in Hunt Valley to a one-bedroom apartment in Parkville and still find time to make her special baked beans for a pot-luck supper.

What's more, Bettye Griffin is also living with inoperable kidney cancer.

On Saturday, she will join thousands of other cancer survivors, their families and friends at an unprecedented national rally in Washington to call for more money to prevent and treat the disease. This year the National Cancer Institute will spend $2.5 billion on cancer research.

"The March ... Coming Together to Conquer Cancer" will celebrate the millions of Americans who are living with cancer, as well as pay tribute to the estimated 560,000 who die of it each year.

For Griffin, this rally is part of a journey begun 11 years ago when she discovered she was ill. She has prevailed through a decade of dire prognoses and life-threatening surgeries. The inoperable tumor pressing against her spinal cord could kill her at any time. But at this stage, she is not easily flustered.

"I'm apt to make jokes -- 'I'll be going into the hospital now, I'll be home later' -- that's how I feel about my disease," she says. "I don't dwell on it.

"When you've had cancer, particularly this long, things happen gradually. It isn't like you wake up one day and you're deathly ill. Today, for instance, I'm walking really well. Some days I use a cane because I bump into things. If I don't feel so hot, I always think I'm going to feel better tomorrow. And usually I do."

Her history with cancer began suddenly in 1987 when Griffin, an interior designer, discovered blood in her urine. After she was diagnosed with kidney cancer, an unpredictable, usually deadly disease that afflicts about 29,900 Americans each year, surgeons removed one kidney and the adrenal gland near it.

At the time, life was good: Divorced for many years, Griffin was dating the retired army officer who would become her second husband. And after the struggle of raising a daughter as a single parent, she was enjoying the more relaxed role of being a grandparent.

After surgery, life returned to normal. Then in 1991, Griffin had her other adrenal gland removed. The next year, surgeons removed a tumor from the kidney bed area. In 1995, surgeons had to remove part of her remaining kidney.

Then she began to have trouble with her balance.She developed a tremor in her left arm and began to feel strange pains in her head.

In fall 1996, a scan revealed the source: The cancer had spread to the spinal cord in her neck area. Surgeons removed as much of the tumor as they could, replaced bone and prescribed radiation.

After each setback, Griffin continued working, often driving more than 100 miles a day for consultations. She took her grandsons, who lived near Washington, to baseball games and state fairs. After her first surgery, she remarried. By the time she had her third surgery, however, she knew it was time to leave the relationship.

Since then she's lived alone. Last summer she moved into Oak Crest Village life-care community to preserve her independence as her health deteriorates. At this point, her condition is stable but fragile: If the tumor on her spinal cord moves a fraction of an inch, she could suddenly die. She usually wears a neck collar to immobilize the area.

Griffin's friends and family say her steadfast resilience, her ability to find humor in her situation, has shown them how to face illness with courage and grace.

Bettye Griffin and Gloria Toye have been friends for 60 years. Last year, they celebrated their friendship at Phillips hotel on the boardwalk in Ocean City.

"We rocked on the porch in those big old-timey chairs and listened to our music, music from the '40s," says Toye. "There was one time Bettye said, 'The doctors don't have much hope.' And I said, 'Don't let yourself think you're going to leave me here in this world!' We accept her illness. And we go on."

Toye knew Griffin back when she was a schoolgirl in the Forest Park section of Baltimore. Griffin went on to graduate from the Maryland Institute of Art in the '40s, then worked as a decorator in Palm Beach, Chicago and San Francisco before returning to Baltimore. After her first marriage ended, she worked hard to build up a client base while also raising her daughter. Griffin and Toye, who now lives in Salisbury, stayed close through it all.

"Bettye is the strongest strong-willed person I have ever met," says Toye. "She has survived because she does not give in! She tells me that some mornings she cannot get out of bed, but she makes herself take a shower and get going."

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