According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide. In 2012, there were 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer-related deaths worldwide. The number of new cancer cases will rise to 22 million within the next two decades.
Those statistics are why, for 32 years now, cancer patients, cancer survivors, caregivers and the family and friends of those affected by cancer raise money each year through Relay for Life to fund cancer research for the American Cancer Society.
Kristen Dunn was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer, in October 2016 at the age of 29 after giving herself a breast exam.
“I’m a nurse but I’m getting my doctorate so I had done several breast exams that day on patients. I was doing my own that evening and I found it,” she said. “The first thought I had when I found out the diagnosis was that I had to get it taken care of now. I needed to get it out of my body. I wasn’t sad and it never crossed my mind that, ‘Oh, I’m going to die.’ I just knew we had to get it taken care of.”
Dunn had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction in November 2016, one month before her December wedding, which she’d been planning since March.
“In the midst of all this wedding planning I got breast cancer. So, literally six weeks before my wedding, I had surgery to reconstruct my whole chest. It was scary that I might not be ready to have a wedding, to be in front of people, to wear a dress, to feel good,” she said.
However, the wedding was beautiful and successful, and Dunn began chemotherapy three days later because a lymph node in her left arm also tested positive for cancer.
She had four rounds of chemo, three weeks apart. Each session lasted eight hours. Her last chemotherapy was in February of this year.
“It was scary. It made me feel really, really sick and I had a lot of side effects from it. I lost my hair, and I mean all of my hair. You don’t have to shave your legs, you don’t have to shave your armpits — actually, that part was kind of nice,” she said, jokingly. “We had just been married and to have to go through this and have your husband see you with no hair — but he was so amazing and he just said, ‘hair will come back,’ and he supported me and my parents have been so great, too.”
Dunn said her faith in God is the only thing that kept her going.
“I knew He gave me this for a reason, because He knew I could handle it,” she said. “I keep telling people this, you don’t really have a choice but to keep going. When you’re told you have breast cancer at 29 years old, you are too young to die so you can’t just say, ‘I don’t care.’ You have to do something about it. That’s why I chose to have the bilateral mastectomy; I just wanted to cut it all off and start over because I did not want to have to go through it again.”
Dunn is cancer free and scheduled to go in for a PET scan in July.
Seven-year-old Olivia Heindl was diagnosed with juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia, or JMML, when she was only 18 months old.
When asked what her first thought was after hearing her daughter’s diagnosis, Olivia’s mother, Trina, said, “I just started crying and said ‘not again,’ because my step dad had just died of cancer.”
Olivia underwent three rounds of chemotherapy before having a bone-marrow transplant in Dallas. At 18 months old, she was experiencing all of the side effects of the chemo, including the nausea, hair loss and mouth sores.
“You have to keep calm because if they see that you’re scared then they’re going to get scared,” Trina said. “I just read my Bible and prayed and prayed and prayed.”
After the diagnosis, Trina and her husband, Jim, got tested for the cancer gene and it was discovered that Trina was the carrier.
Olivia has been cancer-free for five years now and is “doing great,” Trina said.
Twenty-six year cancer survivor Rita Koller said she counts every day as a blessing after being diagnosed with and surviving breast cancer in 1991 at the age of 44.
Because the doctor couldn’t guarantee that her cancer wouldn’t return one day, Koller opted to have a mastectomy and underwent three to four months of chemotherapy as an added protection.
“I’d have a treatment on Friday — my husband would get up on a Friday and we would go have breakfast and then I’d go have my treatments. I’d be good that night and then I’d sleep all day Saturday. Sunday afternoon I got up and then I went back to work on Monday,” she said. “I lost my hair. During this procedure I also found out that the chemo killed my thyroid, so I had complications after I had chemo.”
Koller said her husband and children were her support system. She also worked at the phone company at the time and said, in addition to her support system, her job kept her positive.
“You have to be positive, and you have to have trust in your family and the Lord,” she said. “I’m doing great now. Every day is a blessing and 26 years is a good stretch.”
She now works at The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce as the president’s executive assistant.
In addition to cancer research, American Cancer Society offers numerous programs to cancer patients and their families, including free transportation to and from treatments through its Road to Recovery program, free skin care and make-up products and wigs through its Look Good, Feel Better program, and support for breast cancer patients through its Reach to Recovery program.
This year’s Relay for Life of Garland County is set for 6 p.m. to midnight on June 2 in halls A, B, C and D at the Hot Springs Convention Center.
“The Relay for Life event itself is more of a celebration of the fundraising that’s been going on all year,” said Serethia Crawford, volunteer event chair.
Crawford has also been personally affected by cancer, having lost her grandmother in the ninth grade to pancreatic cancer and was diagnosed with cancer herself in 2011. She also lost her father to pancreatic cancer at the age of 58 and her mother is a two-time survivor of breast and colon cancer.
The event originally began as an all-night affair, but Crawford said they will close at midnight this year so everybody can get home and enjoy their Saturday the next day.
This year’s theme is “Changing the Channel on Cancer.”
Crawford said that, at the time of this writing, 32 teams had signed up so far. They hope to raise $220,000 this year.