Sunday was National Cancer Survivors Day. More than 11 million Americans are living with a cancer diagnosis. For information on locally available cancer services, call Jan Fritz at 871-2464. Helpful national resources include the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov, the American Cancer Society at www.yvmc.org and the American Society of Clinical Oncology at www.plwc.org.
I became a cancer survivor on Feb. 16, 2000. My husband, Bill, and I were still feeling the glow from our candlelit Valentine's Day dinner date when we heard the numbing news that he had colon cancer.
Although Bill's body took the direct hits in our personal war against cancer, our family was on the front lines for all of the fallout. That is why the McKelvies - like millions of other supportive relatives and friends of cancer patients - are all cancer survivors.
"In recent years, we have redefined survivorship and extended it beyond the patients," said YVMC Cancer Services Director Jan Fritz, RN, MN, OCN. "From the moment of diagnosis, the patients are cancer survivors and so are all the people in their lives."
Earlier diagnosis of many types of cancers and continuous advances in treatment are driving this changing approach to treating the whole person, not just the disease.
"We are looking beyond medical treatment at how people are living with cancer," Fritz said. "We need to recognize what is happening within the family, including finances, challenges, changing roles, spiritual questions and emotional issues. Fortunately, this community has a lot to offer survivors."
Katy Thiel of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association coordinates Taking Charge, a cancer support group that meets monthly at YVMC. The Yampa Valley Breast Cancer Awareness Project lightens the financial burden that many local families face.
Fritz works with several YVMC departments to locate financial resources for patients, especially those who are uninsured or underinsured. Help can come from a variety of sources, including government programs.
YVMC's Community Health Resource Center offers a wealth of free information to help people live with and possibly conquer cancer. This special library provides books, medical journal articles and Web site searches that explain the latest cancer research breakthroughs.
Advances in treatment saved my husband's life after his cancer returned in 2003. Both before and after his liver surgery, he received chemotherapy drugs that had just been approved by the FDA.
Frequent tests have shown no evidence of further metastasis, which is cause for celebration, yet we will always live in the shadow of cancer. That is another thing we have in common with millions of other families.
"We now call cancer a chronic disease instead of a terminal disease," Fritz said. "When you listen to people tell their stories from even 10 years ago, you realize that so much is changing so fast. There are many more treatment options than in 1990, when we first began to offer chemotherapy at the former Routt Memorial Hospital."
Last month, Fritz and the YVMC infusion/chemotherapy team initiated the first intraperitoneal chemotherapy treatment at YVMC. This method literally bathes the abdominal cavity and diseased internal organs in cancer-fighting drugs.
"Not only does the chemo go directly to the cancer, it can also be 10 times stronger than the dosage we can administer in the traditional intravenous drip or injection into the bloodstream," she explained.
YVMC's cancer services are provided in partnership with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers of Denver. Medical oncologist Dr. Al Cohn has been coming to Steamboat Springs since 1995. In 2006, he was joined by medical oncologist and hematologist Dr. Robert Rifkin.
The two physicians see a total of about 90 patients from northwest Colorado each month during the four days they spend at YVMC. They discuss diagnoses, provide treatment options and monitor patients after their treatments have ended, in teamwork with family physicians and specialists.
My husband feels he would not be alive today without the YVMC team and hometown support from many friends. The expanding and continually evolving local cancer services parallel the changing way we look at this disease nationally.
We've come a long way since 1962, when my grandfather's doctors wouldn't even mention the word "cancer" for fear of upsetting my grandmother, or the 1970s when cancer was the unbeatable "Big C."
"Today, people do not want to be defined by cancer and do not want the disease to limit them," Fritz said. "Nobody chooses to have cancer. Yet one out of every three adults will either receive a personal diagnosis of cancer or will help a loved one go through this fight.
"I have seen people go from asking 'why me?' to adjusting to their new life circumstances and beginning to hope. That's what makes them cancer survivors."
Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.