Creating cancer survivors
A diagnosis of cancer doesn’t have to mean devastation. Advances in early detection and sophisticated treatment methods help create many cancer survivors.
Cancer survivorship starts on the day of diagnosis. Are you a survivor? We want to hear from you! Submit your survivor story.
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Julie Wrazel, of Monmouth, trained as a chemist and worked over two decades at Hewlett-Packard as a process engineer. After retiring in 2008, she was just starting to enjoy more time gardening, traveling and teaching.
“That’s when I was diagnosed with stage-four metastatic breast cancer,” Wrazel said. When cancer metastasizes, the disease spreads to other parts of the body. In Wrazel’s case, first her lungs and bones.
Wrazel remembers hitting a low point that first winter. “I went online and found that my chances of surviving five years was nil,” Wrazel said. “The worst part was reading how you’re going to die, where it describes in detail all the stuff that will happen in the next 12 months.”
But Wrazel’s doctor at the time, Peter Kenyon, MD (now retired), offered hope when he told her about a new treatment available only through a clinical trial underway through the Samaritan Cancer Program. Kenyon said it represented the best-known science for treating her cancer. She would receive a combination of low-dose chemotherapy drugs in four-week cycles to slow the progression of the disease.
That was over three and a half years ago. Her oncologist since she began the clinical trial has been David Hufnagel, DO, medical director of the Samaritan Cancer Program.
“Julie has had a dramatic response to treatment that has lasted over three years,” Hufnagel said. “Although I have occasionally seen dramatic responses such as these in treatment of metastatic breast cancer, the duration of her response is certainly not typical.”
The trial tested a drug called neratinib, which has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but is expected to be on the market soon. Hufnagel said clinical research is an important part of the Samaritan Cancer Program. “The only way oncology care can move forward is for brave people like Julie to be willing to participate,” Hufnagel said.
Wrazel said she feels fortunate that her doctors found a way to slow the progression of her cancer. She’s hopeful that someday other women with the disease might have a better prognosis. “I am thrilled that Samaritan scored a clinical trial like this,” she said. “I hope this drug can be a useful tool for women who otherwise would have a hell of a fight.”
During the clinical trial, Wrazel received a rigorous standard of care. She had bone scans after each cycle of treatment and frequent appointments with research staff. Wrazel said staff at Samaritan’s infusion center buoyed her spirits.
“These nurses take you by the hand,” she said. “They made cancer survivable.” She recalled how when she felt the worst, Samaritan oncology nurse Deb Sikich assured her. “She said, ‘In this space, nobody knows. You can’t predict. Just don’t go there,’” Wrazel recalls.
From recommendations on a cookbook with recipes for chemotherapy patients, to a personalized protocol for carefully ramping up the speed of her IV to avoid a reaction, Wrazel said she is impressed each week she comes for treatment. “They know what they’re doing here,” she said, of Samaritan’s cancer care team.
Wrazel has been able to maintain a high quality of life and go about many of her normal activities. She gives credit to her care team and to a healthy diet and regular exercise. She’s continued working with several start-up companies, and she teaches business and executive courses.
“Dr. Hufnagel did not discourage me from staying busy,” she said. “This way I don’t have time to think.”
Wrazel said it didn’t take long for her to accept that she would be living with cancer the rest of her life. Back in graduate school, she had a benign lump removed from her right breast. She was told that because she had dense breast tissue, she would likely have more false positives. So she ignored a lump that later developed in her left breast. “That was the lump that turned bad,” she said.
At first she blamed herself. “Then I thought, you’ve managed complex projects all your life. You can manage this,” she said. “It’s a normal part of the human spirit when you’re handed a death sentence to say, ‘Nah.’”
Wrazel pays close attention to the details of her cancer. Shortly after she started the clinical trial, the sum total of all her tumors actually shrunk.
“As a scientist, I love when science works,” she said. But doctors recently found that cancer had metastasized in her brain.
Wrazel underwent radiation and began a new therapy with a combination of drugs. “We are both hopeful that her new therapy will be effective at keeping things under control,” Hufnagel said.
In the front yard of Wrazel’s country home is a 100-footwide retaining wall she built by herself with 11 tons of stone. She enjoys caring for her 10-acre property, spending hours on a riding mower to keep the lawn tidy. This spring she planted a grove of cold-resistant olives so she can have fresh-pressed oil for cooking. There are things to be taken care of, despite disease status and outcomes.
Wrazel takes a no-nonsense approach, citing an expression that a friend with cancer told her. “Cancer is like a hum in the background that never goes away. Sometimes it’s louder. Sometimes softer,” she said. “I don’t feel like this stuff defines me.”
There’s no convenient time to find a lump you fear might be cancer. But finding it on vacation in Mexico while in the throes of Montezuma’s Revenge may rank as one of the worst times to face a dreaded diagnosis.
“I joke that Mexico gave me cancer,” Albany resident Georgiana Rodriguez laughed. She would need that sense of humor to get her through a tough bout with breast cancer at age 43.
Through the Samaritan Cancer Program, Rodriguez received life-saving chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation therapy and other treatments. Toward the end of her year-long journey, she was undecided about breast reconstruction. Her surgeon, Mary Harada, MD, of Samaritan Breast Surgical Specialists in Albany, encouraged her to take her time to decide.
At the same time, doctors at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center were actively looking for a patient to undergo a procedure called “free flap” breast reconstruction surgery, which uses the patient’s own tissue to create a new breast.
Kevin Day, MD, is a plastic surgeon with Samaritan Plastic, Reconstructive & Hand Surgery in Corvallis, where he practices with his colleague Richard Havard, MD, who assisted in the free flap reconstruction surgery.
“Tissue expander and implant-based reconstruction is the most commonly performed reconstruction,” said Day. “But when Georgiana came to me, she knew she didn’t want an implant.” After listening to her wants and concerns, Day brought up the option of the free flap breast reconstruction.
With free flap breast reconstruction, the surgeon removes a section of skin and fat from somewhere else on the body — usually the abdomen — and reattaches it to form a breast mound. Since this method gives a woman a breast from living tissue, the new breast will age and feel like a natural breast. Women can lose several inches from their midsection after the surgery, where the donor tissue was removed. Women have the option of deciding if they’d like to match the new breast to the existing breast, or have a more youthful breast mound created. If the latter choice is made, a second surgery can then lift the opposite breast to appear more youthful and match the new one.
Dr. Day encouraged Rodriguez to go home and think about the surgery and come up with a list of questions for him. She did, returning with two full pages. After deciding to go ahead with the procedure, Rodriguez never looked back. “I told Dr. Day, ‘I think I’m supposed to meet you,’” she recalled. “I just got a good feeling from him.”
The surgery is complex and requires several days in the ICU for close nursing observation and flap monitoring. Since there are two surgical sites, recovery can be longer and there is always the risk the flap will fail. Although the healing process was a slow road, Rodriguez is confident she made the right choice.
“It’s a personal decision, but I’m so glad I did it. I don’t feel unbalanced. I won’t have to worry about my prosthesis coming out in a swimsuit — I feel like me. I love it.”
Two years after her journey with cancer began, Rodriguez is finally closing that chapter of her life with the completion of her reconstruction and a breast lift on her opposite breast. Rodriguez is planning a family vacation to somewhere sunny with her family soon. This time, she’ll focus on the rest and relaxation she was hoping for on the original trip.
“Time is a gift,” she said. “I look at my son and know I don’t want to miss a minute.”
Stan Hagen is a numbers guy — and a bit of jokester, too. Which is why when a routine blood test revealed he had a high prostate-specific antigen level of 114, he knew he was in trouble. The antigen test measures the level of a protein produced by the prostate gland, and many physicians routinely test the antigen levels of men age 50 or older.
Stan, age 50 at the time, joined the nearly 250,000 men diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. “I thought I was a goner,” said Stan, “But hey, my cholesterol level was good!”
He embarked on a grueling treatment regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Ten years later, Stan is cured — with many blessings to count, and a lot to laugh about. For this prostate cancer survivor, a little “tumor humor” goes a long way.
By the numbers
Stan has worked as a controller for decades, most currently at Western Oregon University. He’s been married to his wife Jennifer, a special education assistant for Greater Albany Public Schools, for over 38 years. They have a grown son and daughter, as well as three grandchildren and another on the way. Most everyone in the family seems to have an affinity for numbers. Stan does friends’ taxes “for fun,” and his daughter is an accountant.
“We’re also all a bunch of gamblers,” he said of his family. He recently returned from a trip to Vegas where he hit the blackjack tables with his son. In 2002, when his high PSA test results arrived, Stan was floored. “I felt fine,” he recalled. Within a week and a half of getting that PSA number, Stan was in surgery at Samaritan Albany General Hospital.
After surgery, his prostate-specific antigen level was retested, and the results were not as everyone hoped: he still had a level of 15, when it should be zero. Stan was referred to Dr. Peter Kenyon, a Samaritan oncologist with a long history of superb cancer care.
Even though the prospect of chemotherapy was frightening, Stan said, “As soon as I got in with Dr. Kenyon, I had a feeling of confidence.” He tolerated the chemotherapy relatively well, opting to work from home when he felt ill after an infusion. “It was good to keep working, it takes your mind off of it,” he said.
A little tumor humor, if you will
Stan took his chemotherapy treatments at Samaritan’s oncology/infusion services in Albany, in a cozy room with recliners, a bubbling fish tank and natural light pouring in from large windows. Always one for a laugh, he liked to walk into infusion call out, “Look alive, people!” “I fought [cancer] with humor…tumor humor,” he said, noting how much he enjoyed making jokes with oncology care manager Janie Moody, RN, ONC.
All kidding aside, Stan was grateful for the care he received during his chemo sessions. “The infusion center is very comfortable — that comfort makes a difference. The ladies who work there are very good,” he said, adding, “Even with me, the most obnoxious patient!”
After chemo finished, Stan’s antigen level was still not quite low enough for the Samaritan Cancer Program staff, so Dr. Kenyon ordered radiation. Of course the radiation technicians weren’t safe from a good-natured ribbing. “All you do is push a button,” he chided the technicians. “You had to go to college for that?”
Thankfully, after his radiation sessions at Samaritan Regional Cancer Center, Stan’s antigen number was “down to next to nothing.” In other words, exactly where it should be.
Still cracking jokes
Today, at age 60, Stan is cancer-free and enjoying life. He eats a healthy diet and runs 25 to 30 miles a week. He also receives regular injections of a synthetic hormone treatment commonly used with prostate cancer patients. He keeps regular appointments at Samaritan Hematology & Oncology Consultants, where he said oncology nurse practitioner Holly Almond “gets after me to stay healthy.”
As for long-term effects of treatment, he suffers from some bone issues, but says that running helps. “Attitude is a lot of it. Stress and worry weakens your body,” he said. Stan was thoughtful for a moment, then added, “Thinking back on it, I have fond memories of chemo.”
Fond memories? Of chemotherapy?
“It’s because of the people — with Janie, Dr. Kenyon, Holly. They were all very caring,” said Stan. “I tell my wife it must be like childbirth where you forget the pain and focus only on the good. My wife says, ‘Oh no, it’s nothing like having a baby!’”
Stan still attends a prostate cancer support group offered through Samaritan Health Services. “When I first got the diagnosis of cancer, my family was good and supported me. But talking about it to people who have gone through it … it’s what I really needed. I still go. I call it ‘cancer camp.’”
And Vegas always beckons. Recently, Stan and his son have been reading up on blackjack strategy. Have they been able to beat the house? “No,” he laughed. “Just lose less!”
But in terms of beating cancer, the numbers add up: for Stan, life has been a pretty big win.
When Lisa Nielsen was told she had cancer at age 43, it seemed like an unbelievable diagnosis.
“I had slowly developed an abscess on my chin. When a second growth on my jaw line emerged over just two days, I went to my doctor who sent me to be tested for an infection.”
The culture came back negative but the swelling persisted and Lisa went to the emergency room for a biopsy.
Three days later Lisa got the phone call that she had cancer in the swollen lymph nodes on her neck. Her cancer turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma, the most common type of head and neck cancer.
Lisa underwent surgery at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, had her lymph nodes removed and then six weeks of radiation therapy at Samaritan Regional Cancer Center.
Four years after her diagnosis, Lisa still sees a medical oncologist, otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) and physical therapist regularly.
The unique challenges she faced and the lack of someone to talk to about the experience led Lisa to start a head and neck cancer support group, which she facilitates at the cancer center in Corvallis.
Despite the ongoing doctor’s appointments that remind her of the ordeal, Lisa’s life has pretty much returned to normal. “I’m back to living my life,” she says.
Christina Jacob was breastfeeding her 18-month-old daughter when she discovered a lump. At 30 years old and with no history of breast cancer in her family, Christina wasn’t immediately concerned. But at her next doctor’s appointment she brought up the lump and had it removed. That's when they discovered it was cancer.
What followed was care through the Samaritan Cancer Program, including a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation at Samaritan Regional Cancer Center.
In addition to her 18-month-old, Delayne, Christina also has a son Austyn, 11 at the time, and a daughter Madysen who was 6 at the time.
“Telling my kids was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Christina. “We sat them down after school and I said ‘I have something really important to tell you: Mommy’s sick.’ I’ll never forget the worried looks on their faces.”
Austyn, who had just lost his paternal grandmother to breast cancer, asked, “Are you gonna die?”
“When Austyn asked me that question I told him ‘I can’t promise anything. But I can promise you I’m going to fight like heck to get better.’”
Now, Christina has been cancer free for more than a year. She leads a young adult cancer support group at the Samaritan Cancer Resource Center in Albany and volunteers with Relay for Life.
“It’s really important to me to connect with others who have been affected,” says Christina of her involvement in cancer services in the area. “Cancer doesn’t just happen in older folks. I want to help spread that message.”
We want to hear from you! Submit your survivor story.