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What do you do when you learn you have cancer?

Reactions to that kind of news can vary, but they stay with you


One of our culture’s most enduring homilies has to do with a beverage.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

When the “lemon” in question is the news that you have cancer, that can be a huge challenge. News like that has a way of stomping around in your brain, crashing into things, knocking stuff over — and certainly (because you’re pretty sure you’ve just been handed a death sentence) making it hard to concentrate on even the simplest of things.

I received that news on June 15, 2000, from a physician assistant named Joe at a Kaiser Permanente clinic next door to Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Beaverton. My wife and I were there to learn the results of a biopsy he had conducted a few days earlier. Of the six samples of tissue taken from my walnut-size prostate, he said, five tested positive.by: JESSIE KIRK  - Mikel Kelly, former managing editor of the Times newspapers in Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin, as well as the Lake Oswego Review, has had an ongoing battle with prostate cancer. Diagnosed in 2000, he has undergone surgery and radiation, and the fight goes on.

Of course, we talked about the myriad treatment choices, the need for me to explore them all and talk to other medical professionals, the fact that prostate cancer is usually slow growing — and a bunch of other things I’m sure I forgot in the car on the drive home.

That afternoon, I went way beyond lemonade and made one of my patented brain-cell-killing martinis, with enough gin to float a small boat and no more than two or three molecules of vermouth.

I was 52 and scared witless.

A roller-coaster ride

Sharon Henifin and Becky Olson — of Tigard and Beaverton, respectively — are two local women who successfully turned their own personal moments of terror into one of the biggest, baddest batches of lemonade the Portland area has ever seen.

For them, it was breast cancer.

Already very close friends, Henifin and Olson put their heads together and created the nonprofit organization Breast Friends, headquartered in Tigard.

But don’t let the cool demeanor and almost chronically upbeat attitudes of these two women fool you. They’ve spent more than their share of time under a black cloud, wondering what might be next. What’s more — and this is an important aspect of the whole cancer thing — they’ve both been through it multiple times.

“I found my own,” said Henifin when asked the circumstances of that first encounter. After detecting a lump, she went through the steps necessary, including a biopsy, and was in her doctor’s office, getting the results.

“I knew I had cancer, just looking at his eyes,” she said. “He didn’t hide it well.”

As often happens in these cases, Henifin went on a roller-coaster ride of tests and doctor visits. First they took the lump out, but a few days later she learned that didn’t get it all. Eventually, she underwent a complete mastectomy, and that whole process dragged out over a period of several weeks — and still it wasn’t over.

“I ended up having four scares the next four years,” said Henifin, explaining that it only ended when she had her other breast removed.by: JAIME VALDEZ - Becky Olson, left, and Sharon Henifin formed Breast Friends in 2000 after both were diagnosed with cancer. It's understandable to feel sorry for yourself when faced with that kind of news, but the two friends from Beaverton and Tigard reacted in a way that is still reaping dividends in the community.

Olson’s story was very similar. She went through several scares of her own, beginning with a routine mammogram. She was partially lulled into complacency, she admitted, by the fact that she’d had a lump detected seven years earlier, but was assured that it was merely fibrous tissue.

Then one day she learned that fibrous tissue had grown into stage 3 cancer.

“I was alone when I got the news because I didn’t expect the news,” said Olson.

She asked the question many people ask when confronted with this kind of news: What are my odds? They told her there was a 60 percent chance she would live five years. Olson’s fight with breast cancer dragged on for eight years.

“During that whole eight years, the thing I said to Sharon was, ‘The only thing worse than being told you have cancer is being told you have it again.’”

But really, she came to believe, that’s not entirely true.

The first time around, Olson had a lumpectomy and chemotherapy. The second time, she was subjected to a double mastectomy.

“The third time really scared me,” she said. That one involved seven weeks of radiation, and it was her choice, she explained, to radiate much more than a small, concentrated area. No doubt because of her on-again, off-again history of being healthy and sick, she opted for repeated blastings of the entire region.

“It’s been completely clean ever since then,” she said.

But cancer survivors with the scars and memories of these two know you never really take your health for granted.

Maybe I’ll be first

It’s me again — and I can add a hearty amen here.

By most measurements, you’d have to call my own experience unremarkable. The fact that it was a slow-growing brand of cancer gave me plenty of time to investigate, to read up on other people’s experiences (I was embarrassed how many famous people were already going through the same thing, and I hadn’t even noticed: Michael Milken, Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Palmer, Bob Dole). They were everywhere.

A few weeks later, I underwent what was considered the gold standard in treatment, a prostatectomy, and it was declared a success. My PSA — the number commonly used to detect and measure prostate cancer in men — dropped off to almost nothing. And, because it had been a nerve-sparing procedure, I even eventually regained sexual function (which was very much in question for the first several weeks).

But, like Sharon Henifin and Becky Olson, my adventure was only beginning. For five years, I had regular checkups, and my PSA was closely watched. Then, right at the five-year mark, I was told my PSA was climbing alarmingly fast. Causing my doctor the most concern was the fact that, even though the number was relatively small, it had doubled in a matter of months.

For seven weeks, I spent every weekday morning in the basement of a big brick building across the street from Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. While friendly ladies in colorful scrubs played world music on their boombox, I lay in the red laser crosshairs of a giant machine that zapped me in the groin with radiation. Though the treatment was painless, it did eventually lead, in the months to come, to a general tiredness and two of the biggest fears I could imagine: incontinence and impotence.

And, as this is being written (at the end of March), it appears still another chapter is unfolding. My PSA is once again on the climb, and I’m running out of truly aggressive options. Even after surgery, radiation is a pretty powerful follow-up weapon. But, as I understand it now, my choices don’t go very far beyond normal good-health practices such as diet and exercise and possibly hormone treatment.

Being a typical guy, what I really want to do is pulverize my cancer, to kill it, kick its ass.

But it’s all a vivid reminder of something I learned back in 2000, when I first got the word from Joe about this thing that was in my body: I’m not going to live forever.

We all know that, of course. But I’m not sure we really believe it. Who knows — maybe I’ll be the first person to not die.

‘We’re all terminal’

That darkness, that black bile feeling in the back of the throat is something people living with the “C word” get to know fairly well.

“Your first inclinations in those lonely moments, even if it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you go there,” said Sharon Henifin, adding that being humans with brains, we bounce all over the place. “There are worse ways of dying,” she added. “But you know you have this disease.”

Becky Olson likes to toss out a line she read once in a book.

“We’re all terminal, and some of us are lucky enough to know it,” she said. “And I quote that line all the time.”

Our parents’ generation had similar experiences, said Henifin, suggesting that they didn’t talk about it as much as we do.

“It was kept very private,” she said. “We talk about everything now.”

That’s especially true of women, who turned breast cancer into a topic that can be discussed and rallied around with such high-profile events as the Race for the Cure and similar fundraisers.

Men could stand to emulate those results — one out of two men will get some form of cancer in their lives, compared to one out of three women.

There are good signs, say Olson and Henifin. Better testing and earlier diagnoses are cutting into the death sentence statistics.

“We’re catching it at that earlier stage,” said Olson.

“Back in the ‘60s, they threw the bus at you, with chemo and radiation, and hoped you lived,” said Henifin.

Of course, there is a price to be paid for some of this turnaround. Because of the increased awareness and the success stories, people take it a little more cavalierly. A common misconception now is to be told that you don’t die from breast cancer, said Henifin, but that’s not true either.

“People still do die from cancer,” Henifin insisted. “We lose several women a year, and we think it’s just nauseating.”

The simple truth is, we don’t always know how these things are going to turn out, the Breast Friends founders pointed out. They have personally witnessed cases where two people are suffering from very similar diagnoses — and one will live and the other won’t.

Another cancer call

At my house, there are two of us who have received that cancer news. My wife of 46 years, who must remain anonymous (or I WILL turn up dead, and soon), was at the kitchen counter, where we eat most of our meals, when she got a dinnertime phone call back in 2008 telling her she had adenocarcinoma.

Don’t bother to look it up: It’s lung cancer. And that’s one that comes very close to being a death sentence. My dad died of lung cancer, as did the father of my friend Kevin.

It almost never turns out well.

She took the news like a world-class poker player, keeping (on the outside at least) calm and rational. I, on the other hand, was dying inside. And this brings me to another one of those lessons one learns as life-threatening illness befalls us and our loved ones: It’s much easier to be the one stricken with the disease than to be the one playing the supporting role.

When you’re the one going through surgery or convalescence or whatever, all you have to do is ride it out. Sometimes there’s pain involved, but that’s nothing compared to sitting there powerless, holding a loved one’s hand and wishing you could do more, yet knowing you can’t.

So, my best friend had a chunk of one lung removed and followed that up with numerous repeat visits to her doctor and was eventually declared cancer-free.

Hallelujah, I’d say.

What does it mean?

When faced with her own breast cancer, Becky Olson said she quit her job almost immediately.

Between Olson’s first and second rounds with cancer, Henifin recalled, “She had a scare.” They were getting used to accompanying each other on these treks to the doctor. One day, she recalled, they had met for a biopsy and then got to talking.

“Why did we both get breast cancer?” Henifin asked her friend. “What does it mean?”

It may seem a little cheeky, but they don’t mind pointing out now that right at the beginning, Henifin registered a Breast Friends URL and Olson registered the name with the state. Then, they said, “Now what?”

They soon figured that out.

“We both really believe that it’s what God put us on this earth to do,” said Henifin, adding that they took a class at Marylhurst University called Now is My Time, which required that they write up a blueprint for a project like theirs — and which they still use. They figured out that they needed 501 status, bylaws, a board of directors and all of the legal requirements that come with a nonprofit.

The first several months, they both worked out of their cars, their homes, wherever they could spread things out and talk shop.

Olson gave a talk to a group in Scappoose, for which she was paid $100. In June 2001 they put that money in the bank. In February 2002, they rented space in the building on Pacific Highway where they continue to operate to this day.

Today, Breast Friends has branches in Pennsylvania and Florida, but that wasn’t actually Henifin and Olson’s doing.

“They found us and asked to partner with Breast Friends,” explained Olson, adding that one of the organization’s more useful functions is coordinating support groups.

“We call our support groups Girls Night Out,” said Henifin, hoping to illustrate that Breast Friends is not all gloom and doom. They now have support groups meeting monthly in Tigard, Northeast Portland, Gresham and Newberg, they said, and one was due to start up in Vancouver, Wash., in April.

Through it all, they do a lot of one-on-one talking to people who are just starting on the voyage they both began 13 years ago.

When they’re approached by someone new, said Olson, they almost invariably get the same question.

“One of the first things out of their mouth is, ‘are you a survivor?’ And when we say yes, they often just break down.”

Doctors take care of the body, they like to say, and counselors take care of the mind. “We can address the heart,” said Olson.

A gift of lemons might be mildly annoying, but it’s quite another thing when life hands you chicken manure. Olson and Henifin have officially turned THAT into lemonade, too — all while maintaining positive, supportive attitudes for others to learn from.

Olson has another bit of philosophy she likes to share: “Somebody said, ‘My doctors helped me not die, and Breast Friends helped me live.’”

Mikel Kelly began his 39-year newspaper career as a reporter with the Tigard Times. After holding editor positions with the Woodburn Independent, Lake Oswego Review and Klamath Falls Herald and News, he returned to Community Newspapers in 1990 as managing editor of the Times papers in Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. For the past year, he has worked on the central design desk, which is responsible for laying out the bulk of the company’s two dozen newspapers.

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