There are a couple of things I can say I know with absolute certainty. I know the love I have for my family is unconditional. I know all too well that science and research can be the difference between survival and death. And I know in life that anything is possible.
In the summer of 2011, I was 36, happily getting ready to move into a new house, and gearing up to begin production on my television show when I suddenly started experiencing flu-like symptoms, back pain and night sweats. I went to the doctor not knowing exactly what was wrong. After a few tests, they diagnosed me with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I started chemotherapy immediately, and with the support of my physician — and my amazing family — I began my journey to beat cancer.
I spent 100 days in and out of the hospital. I lost 30 pounds and all of my hair. I was on a feeding tube, and suffered many life-threatening infections. I know that chemo definitely played a gigantic part in me beating cancer, but I’d have to say sharing fruit punch popsicles daily on the front porch with my then 3 and 7 year old nephews, might have shared an equally important role in me being here today.
I remember there were days when I looked in the mirror and didn’t even recognize this frail, bald woman looking back at me.
On those days, I’d find strength in my family, who rallied around me. I’d find strength in my twin sister, who I would look at to remind me of my appearance not so long ago, and who I was going to become again. But I likely found a tremendous amount of strength in the memory of my father and his own fight to survive.
Four years prior to my own cancer diagnosis, I lost my father to lung cancer in 2009. He was 67 years old when diagnosed. My dad was the strongest and most determined man I’ve ever known. His mantra was,
“You can accomplish ANYTHING once you set your mind to it.”
He taught me that anything was possible, I believe that lesson later saved my life. He truly was a living example of that. He grew up poor and drove semi trucks and worked at a local gas station to put himself through college to then later graduate from the University of Florida. He later became a very successful bank president. He survived a double bypass surgery at 36, a heart attack in his mid 40s, a heart transplant in his mid 50s and then at 69, he finally lost his battle with lung cancer. My dad’s words stuck with me, and my entire family. When I faced my diagnosis, his mantra was my entire family’s mantra. It gave me the fierce strength and determination to beat cancer. Like mine, my dad’s cancer was also stage IV. He battled the disease for two years before he passed away. Both of our cancers were found at advanced stages, but I believe that the four years separating our diagnoses gave me a better chance of survival. I benefited from four more years of advancements in science and medicine.
When I think of how far we’ve come with exciting new studies, and the headway we’ve made with treatments like immunotherapy — I’m optimistic for cancer patients in the future. Just a few weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), I had the honor of helping Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) announce a new $20 million research Dream Team. Formed in collaboration with the American Cancer Society (ACS), this Dream Team will be solely devoted to developing new treatments for the cancer that killed my father, and the number one cancer killer in America: lung cancer.
I’m hopeful that with more funding for cancer research, such as SU2C’s Dream Team grants, more cancer patients will go on to be long-term survivors.
This Father’s Day, I’ll be taking comfort in the thought that, while my dad is no longer with us, so many other dads will be celebrating with their children in the future thanks to the advances scientists are making in lung cancer therapies, which will afford lung cancer patients more treatment options that would not have existed otherwise.
To learn more about all of the facts and options available to lung cancer patients, visit: http://www.standup2cancer.org/lungcancer/.