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The Gift of Survivorship

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This June 1 marks the Cancer Center’s 20th annual Cancer Survivors' Celebration.

Why one long-term cancer survivor thinks you should consider attending the best "family reunion" around

This June 1 marks the Rogel Cancer Center's 20th annual Cancer Survivors' Celebration at the Morris Lawrence Building at Washtenaw Community College. Survivorship means different things to different people. Whether you view it as life after you are diagnosed with cancer, life after you are cancer-free or life after a loved one is diagnosed, all are welcome at the Survivors' Celebration.

We sat down with Brenda Mack, a patient at the Rogel Cancer Center who has been cancer-free since 1986, making her one of the longest living survivors of ovarian cancer in Michigan. Mack attended her first Survivors' Celebration in the mid-1990s and has been on the planning committee ever since. She has a lot to say about survivorship and why you should consider joining the Survivors' Celebration.

Q. Tell us a little about your personal experiences with ovarian cancer?

A: It was 1985, my husband and I had three young children and I wasn't feeling right. I went to see my doctor. It turned out I had a nine-pound dermoid tumor encasing my ovary. I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. The first step was to have surgery to remove the tumor. I followed up with six months of daily radiation therapy.

I started off having radiation treatments in the mornings and would go to work afterwards. The radiation made me so sick I eventually went to work in the mornings and had treatments in the afternoons so I was home by the time the nausea set in. I felt it was important to keep working and not stay home feeling sorry for myself.

Q.What does cancer survivorship mean to you?

A: Survivorship is a gift. It's not a given. I think anybody who survives cancer needs to look at it that way. The gift is not granted to everybody. You go through so much to get there and it takes a lot of strength. It is physically and mentally daunting to know that you have cancer. You cry over it and you scream at it. I think it's important to pass that strength on.

Brenda Mack and her granddaughter
Brenda Mack and her granddaughter

Q.What made you attend your first Survivors' Celebration?

A: I received an invitation in the mail a number of years ago and thought it sounded interesting so I went. I was just so impressed. I met many people: survivors, people who worked at the cancer center, community members and people who were still in active treatment. It was kind of overwhelming seeing all of those people in one spot. People shared stories with me about what happened to them. There were caregivers there with family members and caregivers who had lost their family member. Survivorship takes many forms.

Q. What do you like most about being on the planning committee for the celebration?

A: Every year, I get to see people who’ve been coming since I first started. It feels like a family reunion. Sometimes we lose family and sometimes we gain new family. It is a constant renewal of strength and faith.

The members of the planning committee mingle at the event, talk to you and introduce you to other people who are there. For me, it's a way to give back and offer encouragement to other people.

Q.What was your biggest struggle in your journey toward cancer survivorship?

A: The sickness, of course, was a huge challenge. After my first radiation treatment, my coworkers found me laid out on the floor of the women’s restroom. It was awful at the time, but looking back, now I see how compassionate people can be. These people have impacted my life.

Another struggle was the complete focus on my therapy and healing, which meant I wasn't thinking about what effect my cancer had on my husband as a caregiver. I'm here because I had a wonderful husband who stood by me through my sickness and surgery. He was my rock and my port in the storm.

Q.What would you say to a person who is considering attending the Survivors' Celebration for the first time?

A: Expect to have a lot of fun because it’s a celebration. It exists to lift you up. When I first walked in, people came up to me and said hello and told me they were glad I came. They'll ask if you're a cancer survivor or a family member. You get an overwhelming sense you’re enveloped in love. I never felt like I was "new" or a guest.

The guest speaker is a highlight of the day. The speaker has often been through cancer, too, and is part of the family. They give you the sense that even though you've gone through a lot, you can still find joy and humor in it. I never thought I'd think back to that first day of radiation and laugh, but I do.

This year's speaker is Lauren Hudson, a cancer survivor and former TV personality, who is speaking on finding happiness.

Q.What is your advice for a person who is nearing the end of treatment?

A: Remember that the best is yet to come. The Survivors' Celebration is proof of all the people who have been through cancer. Come and celebrate with us.

Continue reading the Spring, 2014 issue of Thrive.

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Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2014