July 11th, 2012
03:21 PM ET

Cancer survivor helps other patients survive

In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. Richard Dickens wanted to help cancer patients, but he never imagined he'd have to battle disease himself before being able to do so. 

Three words unite all cancer patients: “You have cancer.” These words shock the mind and for many begin a period of denial.

Denial is not a bad word.  As someone once said in a young adult group I attended, “sometimes there is a healthy dose of denial.”

I experienced a healthy dose of denial when I was diagnosed with stage 4 follicular lymphoma at 37.  Before my diagnosis, I had just received my acceptance to attend graduate school to study social work. I was an avid athlete and a competitive marathon runner. I felt I was at the peak of good health.

Then one morning, when I lifted my arm and saw a swollen lymph node, I knew it was serious.  Walking numbly through weeks of tests and appointments with several doctors at different hospitals, I learned my prognosis.  The good news was that my cancer responded to chemotherapy, but the bad news was that it was terminal.  I asked a nurse and doctor how long I had to live; they told me I had maybe 10 years.

Ten years are a lifetime when you’re 8, a short time when you’re 80, and not enough time when you’re 37.  Still I never asked “Why me?”  By 37, I knew people my age and younger who had died of cancer, AIDS, accidents and a wild lifestyle.

As a person of strong faith, I realized none of us are guaranteed a full or super-sized life.  Instead of “Why me?” I wondered “Why not me?”

If I only had 10 years to live, what did I want to accomplish?  I adopted the beliefs of a “realistic optimist.” I would do anything to beat my cancer, but I didn’t want to deny that cancer brings some uncertainty.  About this time I read a quote in a magazine that said: "I asked God, how much time before I die?’ She replied, ‘Enough to make a difference.’”

That quote put my situation into perspective.  We can make a difference in a minute, a day or a lifetime.  It’s not about time, it’s about quality.  So I chose a very aggressive treatment, went into remission, and left my corporate job to attend graduate school and study social work.

During this time, the clock was ticking, and I felt I needed to get comfortable with death.  I knew some people who had worked with the Missionaries of Charity in India, and so I traveled to India and volunteered at Mother Teresa’s first clinic, Kalighat Home for the Destitute Dying.

My cancer came back when I returned from India. I graduated from Columbia University bald and in treatment and then underwent a bone marrow transplant, thanks to my sister Kathy.  It wasn’t easy.  But with the support of my family and friends, I did recover.

More than 10 years later, even though my initial diagnosis was terminal, I am now considered cured.  I am an oncology social worker at CancerCare, a national organization that offers free, counseling and support groups, educational publications and workshops, and financial assistance to anyone affected by cancer.

CancerCare helped me when I was first diagnosed, and now I’m giving back by helping people find their way after a diagnosis.  The difference I try to make is to help patients and their families develop a rhythm and get into a space where they can examine their emotions and feelings - guiding them through the maze that is cancer.

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. c s

    My nephew went through a similar transformation after he discovered that he had cancer. He had the best available treatment and so far has survived. He was told that he would never have children because of the treatments. He married anyway to a woman who already had a child. He is a wonderful step-dad. Then one day, his wife told him that she was pregnant. Now he has two sons who he loves dearly. He became a social worker who works with disabled adults and tries to find jobs for him. Once he has found them a job, he spends weeks training them to be good employees. He makes me proud.

    July 11, 2012 at 16:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Yard Dawg

    God bless you! I too am a survivor. It does indeed change your outlook on life .. and I feel has made me a much better person. You can truly discover your real self in your "second life." Continued blessings to you and to all who struggle with this disease, who continue to survive, as well as our doctors and caregivers. Maybe a cure one day soon ...

    July 11, 2012 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Beverly

      I like your term "second life". That's exactly what it is. And for me my second life is so much better than my first.

      July 11, 2012 at 17:15 | Report abuse |
  3. Beverly

    I'm a survivor too, going on 4 years now. It changed everything about me; i.e., how I view myself, my faith, friends, family, the world at large. Life is better now than it was before cancer. I still deal with "it may come back", but "it may not". I'm not dying today and that's what matters...just today.

    July 11, 2012 at 17:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Concerned Citizen

    Bless you. You have endured so much. Thank you for all that you do and for inspiring me and others. I love the point that you made about having "enough time to make a difference". You make it sound so simple, but I know that it takes a lot of courage to do what you did. A lot. More than can ever be conveyed or understood by someone not facing a potentially terminal illness. Again, your story and spirit are profoundly touching.

    July 12, 2012 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. survivor

    My situation was very similar to your including the very bad prognosis and the BMT. It is now 20 years and 7 grandchildren later when I never thought I would even see my kids even graduate high school. I am about to retire from a 35 year career. I want to spend my time traveling, smelling the roses and being with my family–and of course, giving back. I was also helped by Cancecare. They are a wonderful organization.

    July 12, 2012 at 08:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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      April 19, 2016 at 04:02 | Report abuse |
  6. Timmy Suckle

    I kissed my way up to VP at a health insurance company. Now I take over $500,000 of your health care dollars for NO VALUE ADDED to your health care. And that’s just me. Now think about how many other VPs, Directors, Managers, etc. are at my company alone. Now multiply that by thousands of others at hundreds of other health insurance companies. From 10 to 25% of your health care dollars go towards administration that adds NO VALUE to your health care. But my company’s PAC dollars will continue to fool you little people into thinking that a single payer system will be bad. Little people like you are so easy to fool. Little people also don’t realize that a single payer system is the ONLY system that would allow little people (as an entire country) to negotiate better health care prices. Little people don’t realize that the Medical Cartels already know that. And that is the reason why the Medical Cartels spend so much PAC money from the hospitals and doctors lobbying against a single payer system. Some little people say that a single payer system would cost you little people more. But if that were true, then wouldn’t the hospitals and doctors WANT that extra money? Yes they would. So why do the Medical Cartels lobby against a single payer system? It’s because the Medical Cartels know it would allow little people to negotiate better health care prices. And that’s what the Medical Cartels are afraid of. Period.
    But us big wigs at insurance companies, hospitals, and pharmacy companies don’t ever need to worry about health care no matter what it costs. We get our health care paid for one way or another by you little people. And we get the little people that work at our companies to contribute to our PACs. And us big wigs say it’s to protect the little peoples’ jobs. But in reality it would be in the little peoples’ best interest to NOT contribute to the PAC. Again, little people are so easy to be fooled. I won’t ever have to worry about losing my job with so many little people being brain washed by the Medical Cartels’ PAC money. Not only that, the Medical Cartels’ PAC money is used to elect so many republicans that will never allow a single payer system. Republicans have always fought against any meaningful health care reform. But that’s what our Medical Cartels’ PACs pay them for. Politicians can be bought so easily.
    Pretty soon the only people that will be able to afford health care is us big wigs. And that’s the way it should be. We don’t want you little people using up the resources when we need them. And once again, I thank you little people for capping my SS tax at the $106,800 level. Now I only pay 1.3% SS tax and you little people pay 6.2%. Also, thank you for extending my tax breaks. I’m using the extra money on my vacation houses.

    July 12, 2012 at 09:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JP IN MISS

      Why don't you come up with a plan to reduce this trend and present it to ins, commisions in all states.

      because they would be able to afford the premimum cost.

      July 19, 2012 at 06:06 | Report abuse |
  7. Mercury

    Interesting comments, Timmy Suckle, too good to be true from a fat cat, are you real? or just espousing your cause?

    July 12, 2012 at 10:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Jazz

    In my lifetime, ive known only one person who has had cancer. And she has had it twice,, first time when she was 13, the second time when she was 19. Both times she was told it was terminal! Told she would never have anymore children (already had 1). My mother is now 57, cancer free with TWO children. I am proud to be the mother of a survivor. All of you are so inspirational.

    July 12, 2012 at 10:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jazz


    July 12, 2012 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andrea

      #18 written by Flipper14.01.2011 12:42 ппReply QuoteОтилия, это ведь вы постоянно утверждаете, что ничего не происходит и все события вокруг случаются каждый год с точно такой же интенсивностью Возможно вы предоставите статистику ну хотя бы за последний десяток лет чтобы подтвердить свои слова.-----------–погугль... ))) и я не писала, что с такой же интенсивностью... не надо придумывать... я давала ссылку на прогноз...

      September 11, 2012 at 11:15 | Report abuse |
    • Thales

      The exception in this case is almsot every ad that I see for we're hiring our 1st employee asks for a rock star, someone who'll have a huge impact on the company, will put lots of hours, etc, etc, etc. It looks to me as the founders really want someone like them and not someone that just shows up for work . So I'm sure this argument holds true at a lot of big companies but if the founders of a startup are putting those ads and still hiring slackers, well.. they are the get-things-done guys, they should know better.

      September 14, 2012 at 00:01 | Report abuse |
  10. Amanda

    I am a nine year lymphoma survivor. I've wanted to help other survivors since the day after my diagnosis. (At 23, I was in great shock.) I'm glad to read this article and see that there is a profession I can actually do. This is certainly my calling as well.

    July 12, 2012 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Justine

      Why do you out this on Planet KDE?I put it on my blog. My blog, like many many many others, henapps to be syndicated on Planet KDE.Amarok is nice, but has some problems since the 2 port, like the slow interface (the slowest from all KDE apps), but it is very innovative. The pros and cons of Clementine is that it uses only Qt. I don't know what the slowest interface from all KDE apps means. Can you clarify this? The interface feels just as snappy to me as other KDE apps.What is the problem? Every body can use what they want.This post had nothing to do with people choosing to use Amarok or Clementine.

      September 12, 2012 at 04:32 | Report abuse |
  11. Inspirational Spark

    Thanks for this very inspirational story, and for the quote, "I asked God, how much time before I die?’ She replied, ‘Enough to make a difference.’”.

    Another quote that I find inspiring is, "Those who can, Do. Those who can do more, Volunteer."
    Thanks again.

    July 13, 2012 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.