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Focus On: Survivors
In 2001, four women in St. Luke's Hospital's FOCUS breast cancer support group were profiled in an article. We are thrilled to find them all healthy and active five years later. But we were curious: How had their lives changed since their diagnoses? Following are four different stories, but with common threads throughout each.

Norma Kelley was diagnosed with breast cancer on a Friday afternoon in September 1997. She spent the weekend worried, anxious and unsure of her future. But on Sunday morning, she attended Mass at her local parish and experienced something unique that she is unable to explain, even nine years later. "The choir sang a song that contained the words, 'He will dry your tears.' I felt a tremendous sense of calm at that point and put my life in my doctors' hands," said Norma. What is interesting about this scenario is that no choir member who sang that day can recall that song or even find it in their hymnals. "I just think that God knew that was what I needed to hear to help me get through my treatment."

After surgery, chemotherapy and 31 radiation treatments, Norma joined the FOCUS group at St. Luke's. "I found the fellowship and sharing to be very helpful," she said. "I like the idea of patients helping patients get through their diagnosis." Norma's attitude surely went a long way towards her own healing process. "I never saw it as 'doom and gloom'," said Norma. "I met wonderful people and I don't consider it to have been a bad experience." She also learned to put things in perspective, particularly with her family and spiritual life. "I know what is important now."

Brenda Ulmer struggled with a second occurrence of breast cancer in 2004, after her initial diagnosis in 1996. While her life has changed and she no longer feels as carefree as she once did, she has empowered herself with knowledge about her disease. "I go to seminars so I am well-educated on the latest treatments; I read everything about cancer."

Brenda's first diagnosis brought feelings that are well-known by other cancer patients: fear and disbelief. Then, with her second diagnosis, she skipped past the disbelief aspect. "I knew exactly what to do. I got an appointment and went right in to St. Luke's." She encourages anyone who gets a cancer diagnosis to assemble a team of specialists to coordinate care and stay focused on the best possible treatment plan. "My team treats the 'whole person', not just the disease," said Brenda.

Despite her setback, Brenda maintains a positive outlook. "When I have the energy, I'm out there, enjoying life!" she said. "Sometimes, I even forget about cancer...I guess I'm pretty optimistic!

When Miller Chow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, she was no stranger to navigating cancer treatments; she had successfully fought off colon cancer 18 years earlier. "I had enough support to carry me through these times," she said. This support made her experience that much easier to get through, along with what she learned at the FOCUS groups and the informative speakers that were brought in during each session. She also recognized the need for all cancer patients to have a support system. "It makes it easier to get through everything."

For her part, Miller maintained a positive attitude. "For me, it was helpful to keep working, too," she said. After she left her teaching job of over three decades, she decided to help her fellow teachers with their future financial planning. "God left me here to help people and I don't take any opportunity for granted," she adds. Her experiences have left her valuing life more and living it to the fullest. As she points out, "Life is too short."

Ann Shadowens had never done a breast self-exam before October 2001. However, that was breast cancer awareness month and she kept seeing people on television urging women to perform their exam, and the Post-Dispatch had a big article on the subject, so Ann figured she would go ahead and do hers. It was lucky that she did, because she discovered a lump almost immediately. Just as quickly, she was at St. Luke's undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Not that any of that stopped her from living her life.

"My husband and I went to the Master's golf tournament in the middle of my chemo treatments," said Ann. And she certainly did not want to miss acting in her role as Miss Clavel opposite her granddaughter's Madeline for Halloween. Her hair began to fall out the very day she accepted a volunteer award for her work with Nurses for Newborns, but as Ann said, "I was not about to let anything slow me down. I just kept going."

Ann has always held a positive outlook on life, but credits a strong support system for helping her through her illness. "I often think about how people go through something like this without help. I want to find those people and be their support." One important way in which she does this is through her volunteer work with Reach to Recovery, where she and other survivors are matched with a newly diagnosed patient, to help answer questions, offer advice or just lend an ear. "I'm getting on with my life now," said Ann. "I have a lot of things I want to do."

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