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October 2, 2012

Cancer survivor makes peace with disease

VALDOSTA — Where some have found depression and denial, strife and suffering, Joyce Lancaster has found peace.

In spite of being diagnosed with three different types of cancer, enduring open-heart surgery and having a schedule of regular injections planned for the rest of her life, she remains positive and trusts God has placed her on a gracious path.

When Lancaster was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer at 55, she “didn’t think it was anything,” she said. Her gynecologist found a lump on a mammogram six years ago, and a biopsy followed a month later. When it was discovered to be cancerous, a complete mastectomy soon followed, but there were other complications.

Lancaster’s doctor had warned her that an aortic valve was slowly closing up, and that she would have to undergo open-heart surgery to solve the problem. The surgery was scheduled on her birthday.

“I fully believe had I not had to have the open-heart surgery, that the cancer wouldn’t have come back,” Lancaster said.

A year passed without further incident, and Lancaster and her doctors believed her to be in remission, but six months later, a PET scan detected a spot in her lung and on a lymph node in her neck. The lymph node was removed, but she was prescribed radiation therapy for her lung.

Lancaster lost her hair, struggled through the illness caused by chemo and returned to health again. Then in December 2011, scanners detected a third spot near the end of her trachea and in her right side.

“So I had to have chemo again, and lost my hair again,” Lancaster said. “They did the PET scan back in May, and it was good. I didn’t have any cancer.”

Doctors have diagnosed Lancaster as Stage IV metastatic, and every three weeks now she must return to the hospital to get an injection of Perceptin using a port that has been permanently installed in her chest below her collar bone.

The medication takes about 30 minutes to enter her body, but the time waiting for returned lab work to see if she’s healthy enough for the medication extend the visits to sometimes two hours, she said. Still, she remains positive.

“The good thing is, there’s new things coming out all the time,” Lancaster said. “Right now I’m taking a form of Perceptin that was discovered just a few years back.”

Doctors find new forms of the drug that is “keeping Lancaster alive” quite often, she said, but her oncologist decided to keep her on the one that was working.

Lancaster has two children and four grandchildren. When she knew she was going to lose her hair the first time, she made an event of cutting her hair to make sure her three grandsons and one granddaughter weren’t alarmed by her sudden baldness.

“I wanted all four of them to come and watch me have my hair cut off,” Lancaster said. “I didn’t want them to seem me bald-headed and it to be traumatic. We did mohawks and took pictures with grandbabies and mohawks, and then shaved the mohawks off.”

Her optimism has kept her strong and happy through the whole ordeal, and continues to help her through the continuing struggle. While her medication makes her tired, she tries to get what exercise she can outdoors and continues to attend her church, which has provided much support in addition to her family.

“Sometimes you think it’s never going to end, but I was OK with it. I’m at peace with everything that comes my way. I’m a very optimistic person, and I have faith in the Lord,” Lancaster said.

“I feel like God doesn’t make bad things happen, but he allowed this to happen to let me be a witness for him. I can talk to people about it and they seem to be lifted up from it, and it’s not anything I’ve done; it’s what he’s done through me.”

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