Conquering heroes

Feats of famous cancer patients and survivors empower others with the disease

May 22, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun reporter

Marsha Oakley was thumbing through the newspaper Tuesday when she came across the story about Boston Red Sox pitcher and cancer survivor Jon Lester. He tossed a rare no-hitter Monday night, less than two years after being diagnosed with lymphoma.

The story left Oakley, a nursing coordinator at the Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and a 22-year breast cancer survivor, feeling jubilant.

"To have someone like him who is diagnosed and then goes back out there, what a role model," she said of Lester. "He's just like Lance Armstrong. ... I think that people look up to somebody like them and say, `If they can do it, I can do it.'"

With his recent feat, Lester follows in the footsteps of celebrities such as Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France cycling champion whose yellow-bracelet campaign became an icon in the crusade to battle cancer. Recording artist Melissa Etheridge had a national television audience in tears at the Grammy Awards three years ago, when, bald from chemotherapy, she returned to the stage to perform a tribute to Janis Joplin. Such stories provide a shot of optimism that gives credence to the power of positive thinking for many patients and their loved ones.

There wasn't much chance to digest the story about Lester when another more grim cancer headline dominated the news this week: The seizure that Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts had last weekend was the result of a cancerous brain tumor. Longtime colleagues on Capitol Hill were visibly shaken, although all of them described Kennedy as a fighter. He was widely photographed smiling with his family and was said to be determined to sail off Cape Cod this weekend. He was released from the hospital yesterday.

The trials of public figures beset with disease have long spurred public fascination and their comebacks or accomplishments often become a source of hope.

After Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC's Good Morning America, announced on the show last July that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent surgery and returned to the anchor desk the next month. While undergoing chemotherapy this past winter, Roberts appeared on a GMA segment at a fashion show, gracing the catwalk with her head shaved bald and wearing an Isaac Mizrahi evening dress. Her appearance brought a cheering crowd to its feet.

"If you live long enough, you'll have someone close to you go through this," said Tom Large, clinical director of HopeWell Cancer Support, a nonprofit community support facility in Lutherville. Large lost his father to lung cancer a few years ago.

"When you see someone go through the treatment and go back and live their lives the way that Lester is doing, it gives hope to everyone who has cancer."

While such stories can be seen as encouraging for those with cancer, they can also be unsettling to someone with the disease who might feel as if he should be feeling better or able to do more.

"I think that overall the impact is quite positive ... similar to what Lance Armstrong did," Dr. Robert J. Arceci, an oncology professor at Johns Hopkins' Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, said of Lester's no-hitter. "Lance has, however, invested his notoriety and experience into a realistic but positive message. I think such messages are quite inspiring to patients and the rest of us ... but, such stories need to be put into perspective with the ability to [be] temporized by the details."

The back-to-back, good news-bad news of Lester and Kennedy -- both of whom reside in the Boston area -- instantly rekindled national attention to the broad-ranging effects of the disease. It's not surprising that someone who was elated with Monday's news of Lester's no-hitter -- the first of this season and the first by a left-handed Red Sox pitcher in a half-century -- would have had the opposite emotion when hearing of Kennedy's diagnosis less than a day later.

Stacey Huber, a patient resource navigator at Mercy Medical Center, said how patients respond to such stories about cancer depend largely on their own personalities: Those with positive demeanors are more likely to feel affirmation from the encouraging stories, while those with negative demeanors might gravitate toward the disheartening stories. Because of the proliferation of online research, many patients with a cancer similar to that of the senator's will assume that they will ultimately be faced with his diagnosis, she said.

"That's when you have to let them know that each person is an individual, every diagnosis is individual and every treatment is individual," Huber said. "Just because they read something on the Internet, that doesn't mean it's going to happen to them."

Paula Chadwell, a spokeswoman for National Cancer Survivors Day Foundation, regularly searches for cancer-survivor stories to underscore the point that there is life after the disease. She came across the no-hitter news on the Internet on Monday night.

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