Celebrating life after cancer

Large 'Survivors Day' turnout shows treatment progress

June 02, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

Perhaps the best news out of the National Cancer Survivors Day festivities yesterday in Baltimore was how crowded the lobby was at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

About 300 cancer survivors - "winners," one person preferred to call them - turned out with their friends and families for the annual celebration, far more than the 50 who attended the first event at Mercy Medical Center 11 years ago.

It's a rewarding day for all, they said, and particularly for the medical professionals who have cared for these people.

"It's great. It says more and more people are surviving," said Marsha Oakley, nursing coordinator at Mercy's Hoffberger Breast Center, which hosted the event. "I look at them coming through the door; they're healthy-looking, many are finished with their treatment. And they get a chance to talk to their physicians, but they're not coming to have something done to them."

The gathering, spiced up by refreshments, costumed jugglers, a mime in white face and a performer on stilts, is part of a national observance centered on the first Sunday in June at locations across the United States. It's marked by conversation, prayer and reflection by and for an estimated 10 million cancer survivors, with recognition for those who work in cancer treatment, research and support services.

For Robert DiMilla, 70, a retired Boston real estate agent, the day was a chance to thank the Mercy surgeon who tackled the rare appendiceal cancer doctors in Massachusetts diagnosed in 2006. His Boston physicians had offered him chemotherapy for the metastasized tumors, but little hope.

In a grueling 12 1/2 -hour operation last July, Dr. Armando Sardi, chief of surgical oncology at Mercy, removed DiMilla's appendix, gall bladder, spleen, a third of his stomach and much of his intestines before flushing his abdomen with a heated chemotherapy agent designed to kill off any remaining cancer cells.

Today, DiMillo has regained half the 34 pounds he lost; he eats as much as he wants and works out daily. And he remains cancer-free.

"Dr. Sardi, you made my day, and a lot more," he said in a teary testimonial that drew applause from his audience. "I have so much to be thankful for. I feel blessed to be here."

Sardi said cancer specialists want to see more than successful surgery. "Success for me is seeing people happy and full of life, doing what they want to do," he said, interrupting a conversation to embrace former patients. "It gives us tremendous joy."

His aggressive approach to appendiceal cancer is giving patients years, rather than months, of extended life, he said. One has survived 14 years after treatment for the often deadly cancer.

Ellen Mogol, 59, of Pikesville said she has been free of her ovarian cancer for "eight years, 2 1/2 months and counting." Her thanks went to Dr. Neil Rosenshein, director of Mercy's Gynecologic Oncology Center. "The doctor who saved my life," she said.

Mogol attended yesterday's gathering in the hope that sharing the story of her cancer - her surgery, her three rounds of chemotherapy, her continuing good health and the lessons she learned - will provide hope and reassurance for others dealing with similar experiences.

"It is about support," she said. "We're all in this together. It is an exchange of information, and just knowing that you are not alone, the importance of friends and family, and the importance of knowing it's OK to ask for help."

"It's very important to communicate," she said, even if it's "just to hold someone's hand."

Oakley, the cancer center coordinator, makes it a point to tell her new patients at Mercy that she was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 38.

Cancer "scares you to death," she said. "When I was diagnosed, I wanted to talk to someone who had survived, and I didn't know anybody." Her doctors told her she'd do fine, but if you haven't had cancer, "then you really don't understand. I can be that person who has been there, done that."

One important message that the newly diagnosed need to hear, Sardi said, is that cancer is not the death sentence it might once have been.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about cancer," he said. "The important thing is ... if you find it early, it can be cured most of the time." Ignoring warning signs, or delaying treatment out of fear only worsens one's prospects.

For example, he said only 20 percent of those who should have regular colonoscopies actually get them, foregoing a procedure that can actually prevent cancer from developing.

Today's treatments, and a multiplicity of support services, can also allow patients and their families to co-exist with their cancers, he said. "Even people who cannot be cured can live a very normal life with cancer. It becomes a chronic condition."


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