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SANDY BANKS

Self-Pity? Not Here--There's a Race to Run

May 07, 2000|SANDY BANKS

In a battle no one expects her to win, Joyce Thompson has stared down death, again and again.

In 1994, she was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer so aggressive it kills most women within 18 months.

Two years later, doctors found the cancer had spread to her brain, necessitating months of debilitating radiation that left her barely able to walk.

Two years after that, another malignancy appeared. This time it was a rapidly growing brain tumor, so pernicious that only 5% of those afflicted with it survive for more than a year.

Yet this Saturday, Thompson will be among 60,000 people taking to the streets to raise money for cancer research and treatment in the seventh annual Revlon Run/Walk for Women.

She'll be the woman in the three-wheeled purple jogging contraption, being pushed along the 5-kilometer route by her husband, Jim, and their 11-year-old son, Jackson, offering thanks and testimony to the power of medical science, family, faith and friendship.

*

The cancer first surfaced as a couple of small lumps at the edge of her breast. She was recovering then from a four-year bout with Lyme disease--just beginning to feel like her old self again--when "something started hurting" on the right side of her chest, just under her arm.

Thompson was only 38--statistically young for breast cancer--but she'd been diligent about monthly self-exams, since her best friend had died of breast cancer at 39 two years before.

The news from Thompson's doctor was not good. Not only were the lumps cancerous, but this was a particularly virulent form of the disease, which tended to spread quickly and respond poorly to conventional therapies.

There was surgery, then chemotherapy, but the cancer kept growing. Then Thompson was accepted into a clinical trial of a new drug developed by Dr. Dennis Slamon, head of the Revlon/UCLA Women's Cancer Research Program.

It was a study in which one group of women received the actual drug, and the other received a placebo, and neither knew which they were taking. Thompson watched fellow study subjects--women who had become her friends--die, one after another, as their cancer progressed.

When the test ended, Herceptin was approved for widespread use, heralded as an important step forward in the fight against breast cancer. It couldn't cure the disease but could slow its spread in some women, extending their lives by months or years.

"I realized then that I was lucky," Thompson says, "because I was one of the ones who got the drug."

Her luck didn't hold. Soon she began having headaches, and doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized to her brain. She endured months of painful radiation and steroid treatment, which sapped her strength, clouded her mind and left her bones so brittle she could not move without pain. The tumor shrunk, then disappeared.

Another year passed, then the headaches--and the cancer--returned. Because she'd reached her limit of radiation, doctors opted to remove the cancer surgically. But when they opened her skull, they found not migrated breast cancer cells, but a giant glioblastoma, a rapidly growing malignancy that is among the deadliest forms of brain disease.

Surgeons removed as much of the tumor as they could, but with it went much of the vision in Thompson's right eye, and her ability to speak, to read, to write, to count.

And all she remembers of those days is how good it felt to smell the flowers in her room as she awakened from the surgery. "I felt so lucky to be alive."

*

She recounts her medical history matter-of-factly, without a trace of rancor or self-pity. She is dressed in a pink T-shirt and leggings, sitting so gingerly she looks like a doll perched on the edge of the cream-colored sofa in the sun-drenched living room of her Moorpark home.

Even with her hair gone, her arms swollen, her skin mottled from cancer treatment, she is, at 44, a beautiful woman . . . tiny, with graceful, delicate hands, sparkling dark eyes and a smile that puts a stranger at ease.

She traces the trajectory of her life not through the spread of her disease, with its disfigurement and losses, but through the challenges she's faced, the lessons she's learned, the days she has lived to see . . . never mind the experts' predictions.

Before she took ill, she was a rising star at one of the nation's largest accounting firms, winning corporate acclaim as she traveled the country helping ailing companies get back on their feet.

"I was on the fast track," she recalls. An MBA, plenty of money, travel, and a big, important career. "We were . . ." She pauses, searching the muddle of her mind for the word that describes the lifestyle she and her husband led. " . . . Yuppies. That's it; we were yuppies."

Today she has less but also more. "There are things that I understand now that I didn't before . . . I am more in touch with my soul."

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