F ew of us have been spared some contact with cancer, a disease that can strike any part of the body. Even if we’ve never been handed the dire diagnosis ourselves, we’ve endured with loved ones the fear, pain, dread — and yes, heartbreak — the illness can inflict. On the bright side, however, success stories abound. We’ve heard the huge sigh of relief, seen the face light up with joy, as doctors share a cancer-free report.
According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 14.5 million survivors live in the U.S. — and that number should increase to 19 million over the next decade. For that increase we can thank early detection, better treatments, and to some extent, patients’ willingness to alter their lifestyles in favor of healthy habits.
In this section we introduce readers to three individuals with different types of cancer — in the pancreas, the cervix, and a tonsil. One has been cancer-free for a decade, another for a year, the other for five months. These brave folks tell us what helped them through the dark days and put them on a more vibrant, hopeful path.
For some health-conscious food recipes helpful in the fight against cancer, see the article by Memphis cookbook authors Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence elsewhere in this issue. — Shara Clark
Graham BurksHe credits faith, family, knowledge of the facts, and a team of doctors he trusts.N ight chills, yellowish eyes, a nagging pain in the right side. These symptoms were bothering Graham Burks this past March, when he decided to see his doctor. “I’d been at a clothing show in Nashville,” says the 65-year-old Memphian who’s a supplier for two dress shops and also owns a home-repair business. “I told him, ‘Give me a shot or something, I gotta get back to work.’” Today Burks praises Dr. Oakley Jordan, his general practitioner, for saying, “You’re going to Methodist Hospital. We’re going to find out what’s causing this.” Soon tests revealed a malignant mass in the pancreas and Burks was urged to start chemo right away. “This was a huge point in my cancer journey,” he says. “I felt I didn’t have enough information and I knew I had to be my own advocate.” With help from his family, friends, and doctors, he learned about his options. “As one doctor told me, ‘Cancer can be an emergency of the mind. You need to move quickly but not so quickly you don’t get all the facts.’” One key fact he learned was the standard approach to pancreatic cancer — having chemo to reduce the tumor, then surgery. But Burks, whose cancer had not metastasized, chose to reverse that process because “if the disease progresses during chemo, those patients no longer qualify for surgery. I wanted that cancer out,” he says, so he forged ahead with a 12-hour operation in which his surgeons, Dr. Paxton Dickson and Dr. Stephen Behrman, removed the head of his pancreas, where the four-centimeter tumor was located. Known as Whipple surgery, the procedure also involved removing his gall bladder and appendix, as well as half his stomach, and parts of his small intestine and duodenum.
“Recovery is usually two to three weeks in the hospital, but I was home on the seventh day. I had strong determination,” says Burks, who credits a good friend as a role model. “He had cancer but would go to the gym and walk whether he felt like it or not.” That friend died the day Burks started chemo, which made him even more determined.
His particular chemo — called Folfirinox — is a combination of chemicals that has worked well on other cancers and is being tried on pancreatic cancer. “Its side effects were pretty rough,” says Burks, who had to undergo an ablation (or cauterization) to fix a heart rhythm problem after surgery, and required a blood transfusion before his last chemo treatment.
But Burks cleared those hurdles and since then has received two cancer-free CT scans from Dr. Kurt Tauer at West Clinic. To maintain his health, he avoids sugar, fats, and processed foods, and pursues a whole-food diet of fruits and vegetables and seasonings high in antioxidants, like turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, and sumac berries. He has also had his tumor genetically tested to be matched against new successful drugs in the event his cancer returns.
Today, he recalls asking his surgeon what could help him beat the disease. “Dr. Behrman said, ‘Believing in God, having people around who love you, and believing you can make it,’” recalls Burks, who was raised in the Christian faith and, though widowed, has a tight-knit family of three sons and their families, along with many good friends. To that list Burks adds, “You need a team of doctors you trust, who can explain your options to help you make decisions you can live with.”
Burks also received support from the Kosten Foundation, founded in memory of the late Herb Kosten, who died of pancreatic cancer. “That foundation gives hope,” he says. “I’m five months clear of the disease, and that’s rare. I want to be a beacon of hope for others.”
Chloe O’Hearn“Just being alive” brings joy to this cervical cancer survivor.S he remembers clearly when she learned she might have cancer. “I was in a business meeting in Canada when I got a phone call from the nurse in my doctor’s office,” recalls Chloe O’Hearn, a 38-year-old wife, mother, and business owner. “She said my Pap smear was abnormal. I was out of the country, away from my husband, and completely terrified.” She’d seen the doctor for her annual exam and had plans to try and get pregnant. That was in March 2003. After the Pap smear, followed by further testing, O’Hearn learned she had cervical adenocarcinoma in situ. Unlike the more common cervical cancer that affects the epidural layer, this type affects the mucus membrane, a deeper layer of the cervix. Three weeks later — a period she spent thinking, “Oh my God, what’s next?” — she had surgery to remove the affected tissue. When a biopsy showed that tissue still had cancer cells on the margins, O’Hearn was sent to Dr. Joseph Santoso at the University of Tennessee Cancer Center. “That was really scary,” says O’Hearn, who was 27 at the time. “But Dr. Santoso made me feel better about my options.” Explaining that her form of cancer often returned quickly and progressed rapidly, Santoso recommended O’Hearn have a hysterectomy. When she told him how much she and her husband wanted to have a child, Santoso advised they surgically remove the cancerous tissue, then “I would try to get pregnant as quickly as possible,” she says. She had the second surgery in June and by August she was pregnant. “It was a high-risk pregnancy,” she says, “because I didn’t have a lot of my cervix left, and that meant I could miscarry any time. I was on bed rest in the hospital starting at 21 weeks and my son, Max, was born seven weeks premature. But he was healthy.” Later, to reduce chances of the cancer’s recurrence, O’Hearn underwent a hysterectomy.
Through all that period, several tests were performed to ensure the cancer wasn’t spreading. “It was stressful, not knowing,” she says, “but I had a great team of doctors.” Beyond that, O’Hearn says she was already familiar with cancer. “I had a scare with a mammogram a few years ago. And my grandmother had breast cancer when I was young. Though I had two years of what seemed like total hell, my grandmother was a real inspiration. She had survived cancer and that made me believe I could too.”
Since that experience 11 years ago, O’Hearn has developed a sense of deep gratitude. “I have a wonderful husband and child. I live in a city with great medical care. I’ve learned about living a healthy life. I try to pay attention to things that cause cancer.” She also has a new sense of purpose. “I started thinking about what I’m doing with my life and if there’s something I’m missing out on.” After 15 years in “corporate America sitting in front of a computer,” O’Hearn helped start Co-Motion, a studio that encourages fitness and movement through various dance styles, including hula hooping. “Hooping was transformative in my rediscovering joy in life,” says O’Hearn. “We love helping others find that same joy.”
As for cancer, she knows that most people hear that word and think “death, chemo, all the bad things. But there’s so much doctors can do now,” she adds. “It’s not always a death sentence. My experience with it certainly helped me appreciate just being alive. I’m happy and fortunate in so many ways.”
Frank UhlhornHe walked a rough road through surgery and radiation; today he laughs about his “death mask.”A fter being cured of prostate cancer 14 years ago, this Germantown homebuilder put the experience behind him. “That was all in my rearview mirror,” says Uhlhorn, a husband and father to a blended family of five boys. “I hadn’t thought about cancer in forever.” But in January 2013 he went to see a nurse practitioner for flu symptoms. While he was there, he asked about an almond-sized knot in his neck, and the doctor ordered an ultrasound. Uhlhorn says he’ll never forget how the technician performing the test started out smooth and calm, until her hand began to shake. “She kept going over it,” he recalls. “I knew something was wrong.” Soon the 63-year-old Uhlhorn was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer. Though this type cancer is often found in the epidermis, it can occur in other body parts; in this case, it originated in one of Uhlhorn’s tonsils. In March 2013 at Methodist University Hospital, Dr. Sandeep Samant removed the cancer. “Dr. Samant actually got two tumors,” says Uhlhorn. “One was the size of a chicken drummy, then another the size of a golf ball behind the tonsil. The surgical team kept going till they got it all, including 15 lymph nodes; two of those were affected.” If that extensive surgery took its toll on Uhlhorn, it was a picnic compared to radiation. The first step in this process was to make a mask of Uhlhorn’s head and neck. “They take this slitted green sheet of plastic and put it in 165-degree water and they mold it around your face like candlewax,” he recalls. “They want to be very precise with the radiation beams, aiming at exactly the same place every day. I called it my death mask,” he adds with a laugh. “It had my name on it.”
Radiation took place five days a week for six weeks. “They put me on this short table, bolted me down, strapped me in, and put on the mask. I could count the times the machine made its humming/clanking sound – 85. I’d lie there, hold my belt buckle, and count.”
Although doctors told Uhlhorn he wouldn’t hurt for a couple of weeks, his pain soon was unbearable. “At a week and a half in, I woke up one night screaming for my wife to get me [a pain med], I was aching all over my head and chest area,” says Uhlhorn. “The next day I went in and told the folks at West Clinic, ‘Thank you for your efforts, but I’m not man enough for this. I’m a sissy.’” However, a Fentanyl patch made the process more bearable, and Uhlhorn finished the radiation on June 7, 2013.
Three months later he had a “clean” PET scan. “Now I go every 90 days for a CT scan,” says Uhlhorn. “Dr. [Kurt] Tauer of West Clinic said I was doing great. He was the quarterback for this whole thing. He and all the people there are so compassionate. They treat everybody like family.”
Naturally, surgery and radiation caused some lingering side effects: numbness on the tongue, dried salivary glands, some difficulty swallowing. But all that fades in light of the kindness Uhlhorn recalls. “You never know till you’re in this situation how many people love you. The guys at the subdivision we were building would greet me with Gatorade and tell me to go home, they could handle it. Friends came by not expecting me to entertain them. They just let me fall asleep in the chair. I’d sit in a stupor — then see a stack of get-well cards or a bowl of potato soup someone brought over.
“Through it all,” he continues, “I tried to keep my sense of humor. And to get up and get dressed and not let the couch swallow me. I also realized I had a strong faith. Many nights I wondered if I’d wake up the next morning, and I talked to God and made my peace with that.
“Now,” he concludes, “the sky is bluer. The flowers are sweeter. All the things you took for granted? You don’t anymore. You really know how good life is.”