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The way the word survivor is bandied about on television these days, one would think that all it takes is a jaunt in the wilderness and—Bam!—you’re a survivor.
If only that were true.
Children who have beat cancer and those who continue to fight the disease know the designation comes with a hefty price tag rather than a million-dollar payoff. The reward comes in knowing one has persevered through the journey.
Perhaps that is why Maria Garrido hopped on a plane from Chile to visit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in June of 2003. A newlywed, Maria brought her husband, Hugo, to see the place where, as a young girl, she won her battle with Hodgkin disease. “St. Jude is a part of me,” she says. “It feels so good to be back. It’s a part of my history.”
Howard Jernigan understands. He cherishes his status as a cancer survivor. “I didn’t ask to have cancer, but it is something that has made me who I am today,” says the 32-year-old from Kentucky who overcame an eye tumor as an infant.
Jernigan and Garrido were among more than 400 patients and family members who found their way back to St. Jude for the hospital’s Seventh Annual St. Jude Cancer Survivors Day. It was a time to celebrate life with people who know what it means to muster up the courage to fight a callous opponent called cancer.
Jernigan was just one-and-a-half years old when doctors told his mother, Sandy Robinson, that he had retinoblastoma. After three decades, her eyes still well up at the thought of his illness. “As a parent you don’t expect that you’ll be thinking of your baby in terms of life or death,” she says. “St. Jude pulled us through. They proved that you can have cancer and still go on to lead a normal life.”
More and more patients have indeed gone on to lead “normal” lives, thanks to advances in cancer treatment that have dramatically improved cancer survival rates since St. Jude opened more than 40 years ago. In 1962, the overall pediatric cancer survival rate was about 20 percent. Today, more than 70 percent of all pediatric cancer patients survive their diseases. An estimated 8.9 million Americans are now living with and beyond cancer diagnoses.
A survey of patients who attended Survivors Day at St. Jude showed that patients have gone on to lead productive lives as students, teachers and business owners. Some even have a taste for adventure with hobbies ranging from motorcross racing and hang gliding to storm chasing and cliff jumping.
The spirit of the survivors would be an inspiration to St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, said an emotional Richard C. Shadyac, national executive director of ALSAC, the hospital’s fund-raising arm. “Danny had a dream,” he told the gathering of survivors. “It wasn’t about brick and mortar or about raising money. You are what Danny dreamt about. You are what we are all about: saving the lives of children.”
The St. Jude celebration was held in conjunction with National Cancer Survivors Day and offered former and current patients a chance to tour the expanded hospital, meet with staff members and attend workshops that addressed the unique concerns of being cancer survivors.
“You’ve taken that first step—surviving; now you have to face other issues,” Stuart Kaplan, MD, told survivors at the event. Kaplan, who conducts follow-up care at the St. Jude After Completion of Therapy Clinic, says events like Survivors Day are important.
“They give people a chance to learn about issues that affect their lives post-treatment, such as fertility, stress and access to care,” Kaplan says. “It gives them a chance to network with other survivors, and maybe to reconnect with some old familiar faces.”
When St. Jude patients Amanda Lyon and Wendy Davis shrieked, hugged and giggled after spotting each other at the Survivors Day event, no one seemed surprised. They are teenagers, after all. But the second set of squeals—from their mothers—got everyone’s attention.
“It’s like seeing long-lost family,” explains a giddy Teresa Davis, still clenching Sue Lyon’s hand. “Our daughters went through this together and so did we. It’s wonderful to be with each other again under much better circumstances.”
Davis, from Memphis, and Lyon, from Illinois, say that Survivors Day is just as important for family members as it is for the actual cancer survivors.
“We were the ones beside them for the surgeries or awake all night when they were sick,” Lyon says. “They were so young that they sometimes don’t remember how bad it was or how far we’ve come.”
“But we know,” says Davis. “We moms remember everything. It’s one thing to celebrate with our friends and family; but there is something special about celebrating life with people who walked the walk with us. They were on the same path, so they know what it’s like without even saying a word.”
The inner strength of a true survivor can shine boldly even in the twinkle of an eye. After licking cancer, tackling the wilderness would be a walk in the park.
On Saturday, June 5, 2004, St. Jude childhood cancer survivors and their families will gather at the hospital to celebrate the Eighth Annual St. Jude Cancer Survivors Day. This year’s event will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the After Completion of Therapy (ACT) Clinic.
Open to all St. Jude cancer survivors and their families, Survivors Day will include a health fair with fun, interactive booths relating to nutrition, exercise and wellness. The day will culminate with a talk by Kevin Sharp, an award-winning country music vocalist, entertainer and cancer survivor. He has a platinum album, Measure of a Man, and chart-topping hits, including ”She’s Sure Taking it Well,” “If You Love Somebody” and “Nobody Knows.”
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