Cancer patients hear messages of hope

Posted Nov. 07, 2008, at 8:49 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The most dreaded words in the English language may be “You have cancer,” but an inspirational survivor assured about 200 people affected by the group of diseases that “there is life after cancer.”

Speaking at the second annual Living With Cancer conference in Ellsworth on Friday, Calais resident Marianne Moore encouraged her audience to maintain optimism and faith, to control stress, to eat a balanced diet and to exercise daily.

“Exercise invites healthy cells to reproduce,” said Moore, who practices what she preaches. Regular exercise also boosts energy, relieves stress, decreases anxiety and fear, and stimulates the appetite, she said.

Moore, who owns the Curves exercise franchise in Calais and is an active volunteer with the Maine chapter of the American Cancer Society, was diagnosed with cervical cancer 28 years ago. Cancer-free for many years now, she remains vigilant of her health and has made a point of living her life to the fullest, including a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a hike to the base of Mount Everest, and the completion of numerous fundraising marathons and other physically demanding accomplishments.

“Cancer touches us all,” she said. “But there is hope and healing along the path of our journey.”

The conference also featured a panel of individuals living with cancer, including 62-year-old Linda Milenkovic of Eastport. Diagnosed three years ago with advanced and inoperable pancreatic cancer, Milenkovic said she beat the odds of surviving the devastating diagnosis by signing up for experimental treatments at Northwestern University Hospital near Chicago, where she lived at the time. The drug and radiation treatments were “straight from hell,” she said, but her chances of long-term survival have risen from 0.5 percent to 50 percent.

“You have no idea how good a 50-50 chance of surviving can look,” she told her audience, “Or maybe you do.” Milenkovic, who believes she is the only one of 87 pancreatic cancer patients who underwent the experimental protocol still living, travels back to North-western twice a year to see her doctors.

“I’m their poster child,” she said.

Tina Bridgham, 48, of East Machias said her Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis in 2006 came as a shock, since she had quit smoking 24 years earlier. Her doctors’ initial pronouncement that she had less than a year to live left her stunned.

“I just shut down. I couldn’t talk to my family. I couldn’t see past that point,” she said. “For a year and a half I was just waiting to die — and then I didn’t.”

Since then, she has learned that “60 percent of new cases [of lung cancer] are in people who quit smoking more than 10 years ago and in women who have never smoked in their lives,” she said.

Bridgham, whose cancer has now spread to both lungs and metastasized to her brain, said her life has been enriched by her disease. She has become active in a national lung cancer education campaign and makes frequent presentations in Washington County schools and other venues. In addition, she said, the experience has crystallized her appreciation of her life and the people in it.

Seventy-six-year-old Mart Lapin of Orono described his ordeal of being treated for cancers of the bladder, kidney, vocal chords and skin — all in one 18-month period. Though he never doubted he would survive, he said, the experience led him to establish the Maine Oncology Foundation, a nonprofit program that gives financial help to families and individuals seeking treatment for cancer.

Each of the panel members stressed the importance of getting a second medical opinion, and they all said they had traveled out of Maine for some or all of their care. Bridgham said her second opinion from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston was essentially the same as the information she received in Maine.

“It gave me peace of mind to come back to Maine for my treatment,” she said.

But Lapin told of a 34-year-old man in Old Town who recently was told by his doctors that there was no effective treatment for his colon cancer, which had metastasized to his liver. Urged to get a second opinion, he sought care at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and is now cancer-free, Lapin said.

“Be your own advocate and get a second opinion,” Lapin said.

Brewer social worker Jim Green facilitated the panel discussion and said men generally find it harder than women to discuss their illness and may be too quick to accept the first recommendations they hear. He recounted his own experience with prostate cancer, which was diagnosed in 2005.

Green said his physician was prepared to schedule immediate surgery, which may be associated with incontinence, impotence and other unpleasant complications. After some Internet research and outreach to support programs, Green came upon the philosophy of “watchful waiting” as it applies to prostate cancer. He now has regular blood work to detect any worsening of his cancer and has made changes in his lifestyle to promote good health. So far, he said, there is no indication that his cancer is progressing.

Exhibitors at the free, daylong event offered information on a number of resources, including support groups, transportation assistance and other programs. The conference was sponsored by the Maine chapter of the American Cancer Society, which also presents Living With Cancer events each year in Augusta and Presque Isle.

On the Web: www.cancer.org/mesupport

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