Archive for Thursday, June 5, 2003

Staying power

38-year cancer survivor sees attitudes change

June 5, 2003

Rita Conner can't remember when people began using the term "survivor" to describe people like herself. Then again, since Conner's colon cancer diagnosis in 1966, the outlook on cancer has taken a more optimistic approach. After all, Relay for Life is the name of the event at which Conner will share her story and carry a torch in honor of other survivors beginning Friday at Laws Field.

Attesting to length of Conner's success, since her diagnosis in 1966 three of the Eudora resident's physicians have retired.

"Basically, I get along really well," she said. "I just thank the good Lord I'm alive."

Conner fell ill in 1965, spending Christmas in bed.

"I would get sick, and I couldn't figure out why," she said.

Conner said her mother encouraged her to visit her father's physician.

"I was 32 years old and I thought, 'I don't need to see this doctor -- he operated on my dad for cancer," Conner said.

When Conner's father was diagnosed with cancer in 1951, the idea of survival was out of the question.

"They told my parents to get their affairs in order," said Conner, who was a senior in high school. "Back then I thought, 'My dad can't die.'"

After seeing the physician, Conner was told she had 24 hours to enter the hospital, not an easy task for a mother of two married to a truck driver gone for long stretches of time.

"On the way home, I knew Debra would spend time with Grandma and Grandpa," she said. "But what to do with a 9-year-old in school?"

Conner's dear friend Dorothy Westerhouse told her Ron would be living with the Westerhouses for a while.

"I will always remember that," Conner said.

By Jan. 17, 1966, Conner was having surgery.

"I never had so many tests," she said.

Conner counts herself fortunate that she never had to endure radiation or chemotherapy. Still, unlike the Relay-financed resources the American Cancer Society offers today, limited information was available to cancer patients at the time.

"You just asked your doctor," Conner said.

Physicians didn't have all of the answers either. Before surgery, Conner's physician told her she would have questions he wouldn't be able to answer.

Yet Conner herself was somewhat informed. Because her father experienced trouble with a stomach pump during his surgery, Conner said she was wary of having one used on her.

"The doctor said, 'The only thing wrong with her is she knows too much for her own good,'" Conner said.

But she was fortunate to have her husband, Dale, by her side for three days.

"I could not have asked for anybody to take better care of me than my husband," she said. "I told him afterward that he should have been a nurse."

Today's cancer survivors and their families have access to Relay-financed support services that didn't exist in the 1960s. Conner said if there were such services, she and her family didn't know about them. Moreover, she said the procedures improved greatly, including using a colonoscopy instead of barium enemas.

With her own history and cancer running extensively throughout her family, Conner and her family have regular check-ups, but she said medical advancement since her diagnosis made the tests much more bearable.

"I just dread getting ready for them," Conner said.

Having survived cancer and having seen grandparents, parents, siblings and nieces and nephews struggle with the disease, Conner said her family had a strong reason to support the Relay for Life. Although she missed the inaugural year in Eudora, Conner has played a part in the annual event. This year she will lead and speak on behalf of those who've struggled with cancer and now triumphantly call themselves survivors.

"The good Lord knew what to do," she said. "I feel wonderful."

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