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Survivor Stories

Stacey Frazier
Cervical Cancer

Twenty-eight years ago, Stacey was diagnosed with cervical cancer. This is her story.

“I had no history of reproductive cancers on either side of my family, no current symptoms or complaints, and the pap and pelvic done just eight months prior was clear. I scheduled another appointment because my husband and I had decided to try and get pregnant. Afterward, I received a phone call from my doctor telling me the news. I had cancer, and it was aggressive. It was my thirty-second birthday.

Twenty-five days later I was admitted for a radical hysterectomy. The plan was to leave my ovaries in hope not to send me into immediate menopause. The procedure from start to finish lasted over thirteen hours. I was admitted to the OBGYN ward, and it was a hard moment of reckoning when I realized this would have been where I would have come to have the baby that now would never be. I spent the rest of the night listening to newborn babies cry as they were brought to their mothers’ rooms.

My surgeon was meticulous. I would need no chemo or radiation (if I agreed to make the 2-hour trip to the hospital for exams and labs every 8 weeks). Unfortunately, my marriage was irreparably damaged, and my identity was in crisis for years, but at least I had time to discover who I was meant to be.

October 5th, my birthday, will be twenty-eight years since hearing my young female doctor stammer out the words, “Stacey, it’s cancer”. There has not been a single birthday go by that I don’t feel that shadow behind me. There has not been a single exam since that I don’t become somewhat emotionally paralyzed until I get the “all normal” from my doctor.

As I had with other crisis moments in my life, I found a way to channel my experience into a shareable moment(s). I volunteered as a speaker for the American Cancer Society, became active with Relay for Life, and helped walk other young women through their own diagnoses. It took years for me to recognize that I was, indeed, one of the lucky ones. When the HPV vaccine became available, I knew that there would be women who would not get that stammering phone call, and they would be even luckier than me.”

Claudia Gruberg
Oropharyngeal Cancer

In 2014, Claudia was diagnosed with Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma oropharyngeal cancer. This is her story.

“I was 53 years old and woke up one morning with a ping pong ball size lump on the right side of my neck.  It was concerning because there was no indication of anything the previous night.  I went to my primary care physician and was told it was a cyst; as a nurse I knew cysts do not appear overnight. I went to another physician for a second opinion.    

This doctor felt like he saw something on my tonsil, leading him to call an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) physician immediately.  They were able to see me the next day, and I had a biopsy done.  At the time, of the biopsy he didn’t feel there was anything to worry about. Two days later, he called me at work and asked me if I was sitting down?  I wasn’t but after hearing those words, I sat down.  He told me that the biopsy found squamous cells, he had also already called the physician that referred me and shared the diagnosis.

On the way home from work I was called by the concierge physician, and he explained that it was cancerous, and he had already called a physician at MD Anderson in Houston, TX.  Within two weeks I was being seen by an ENT surgeon and advised there were squamous cells found and was scheduled for a computed tomography (CT) scan.

After about two weeks I was told it was Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma.  My options were surgery or chemotherapy and radiation.  I chose the chemotherapy and radiation; chemotherapy treatments, and thirty-six radiation treatments.  During the radiation therapy I was locked down to a table with a special made mold that covered my face to my chest with a ceramic mold that held my tongue to the left. I felt like I was going to choke every treatment and it takes 10-15 minutes before the techs can open the door after the radiation is dissipates. 

I had an 80% chance of recovery from the diagnosis since I was not a smoker.

Following the treatments, I was not able to make decisions the way I had before my treatments.  I went to a neurologist and was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. I was lost.  My personality became erratic due to not knowing how to handle this diagnosis.  I was overwhelmed and felt I had no support. Another issue from my treatments has left me with impaired hearing in my right ear.

Later my dentist informed me he had just returned from a conference on HPV related oral cancer and performed a very thorough oral examine that he learned from attending the conference. The dentist I saw following the cancer treatments asked me where the cancer was located. I told him it was related to HPV, and it was located on my tonsil but initiated from the oropharynx.

I am currently working for one of my best friends in Southwest Oklahoma as a licensed practical nurse teaching diabetic classes making half the salary I was making prior to the cancer, but I AM cancer free.”  

Parker Henderson
Pre-B cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL)

Parker was diagnosed with Pre-B cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) on January 9th, 2022. Parker’s only symptoms were swollen tonsils and lymph node under her chin. Here is her story.

After visiting 2 pediatricians in the weeks leading up to this diagnosis date, both doctors had diagnosed her with tonsillitis as she tested negative for all the everyday routine illnesses - no strep, no Covid. 

Parker woke up with a swollen face on January 9th, she had already had two rounds of antibiotics with no real signs of improvement and as a mother my gut feeling said we needed get to the Emergency Room (ER). 

Once at the ER, she experienced many first procedures, and the news was unimaginable…Parker had leukemia!  Leukemia has no genetic correlation and there is currently no explanation why it picks who it does. Parker’s official diagnosis was acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and despite this, we felt as if we had won the cancer lottery. Meaning, ALL is the most common form of childhood cancer, with the best odds of remission, along with the greatest possibility of complete/full recovery with the lowest odds of relapse.

Although her prognosis was good, Parker still had a long, hard road ahead of her. The treatment plan for ALL consists of daily chemotherapy for 2.5 years. Only 16 days after turning 8 years old, her life flipped, and she now had to endure thoughts and procedures that adults fear.

Parker is currently walking bravely through the maintenance phase which consists of daily oral chemo, monthly visits for blood work and an exam and a spinal tap every three months. Despite this, she has been able to go back to school and complete her 3rd grade year. She also reentered the pitcher’s circle for softball. If you ask her how she does it, her answer is always the same “because I’m Parker and I have to just keep going.”

Through this journey, Parker has decided that when she grows up, she wants to be a Child-life Specialist so she can help other kids fight their own cancer battle and just keep going. Today, Parker is currently in remission and has a target date to ring that bell in March 2024.  

Danielle James
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

At the time of diagnosis, Danielle had just turned 25 years old, and she had no risk factors. Here is her story.

“I was experiencing a chronic cough and shortness of breath. On a Friday, I went in for a chest x-ray. They found fluid on my lungs, and I was sent to the ER where I was admitted upon arrival. 

By Monday, my lungs were drained. Then the doctors noticed spots on my lungs which required a biopsy. This was the moment things became clear to me. Just ten days after my birthday, I was diagnosed with stage-4 non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) adenocarcinoma. At this time, I was given six months to live but I relied on my doctors, research, and faith. GOD said, “Trust Me” and I did.

During chemotherapy, thanks to genomics, it was discovered that I had an anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene mutation. This meant certain medications could control the spread of the cancer so they could target my therapy. This new treatment worked for two years, blocking the mutations in the DNA of the cells.

At this point, doctors discovered brain tumors, so I began a clinical trial. This gave me seven more years of hope. In those seven years, my daughter came into my life!

In January 2023, the clinical trial drug stopped working so I had to end that treatment, but it didn’t stop my hope and commitment to keep fighting. I am confident in my doctors in Denver, CO and that new research is always coming forward. As I await the next steps, I continue to cling to my family and my faith. I have read Psalms 77 frequently during this fight, noting that faith and hope are put into our lives for a reason.

Despite only being given six months to live, this May I celebrated ten years…and I am not done yet!” 

Ruby Mackey
Breast Cancer

Ruby age 61, is a wife, mother, grandmother, and oncology nurse for over twenty years. This is her story.

“Cancer has been a part of my life since my very first memories. My mother died of breast cancer when I was six and my father passed away from a brain tumor two years later. Genetic testing was not covered by my health insurance and was very expensive, so it was not until years after my cancer diagnosis that I tested positive for the BRACA 1 gene. 

In 1995, at the age of thirty-four, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive ductal in-situ breast cancer. At this time, I had three young children (with my youngest daughter being just three months old). The cancer was hormonal negative and with my family history, my case was taken to the tumor board, where it was decided that chemotherapy and radiation would be my best option for survival. When you are mother, especially to young children, you grab onto whatever hope you can, so a whirlwind year of multiple surgeries, chemo and radiation began.

The advances made since I underwent treatment, are astounding. There are new biologic drugs, immunotherapy drugs, better drugs for symptom control, and more genetic testing options.

As a cancer survivor and nurse, I am aware of both internal and external stimuli that may negatively impact my survivorship such as genetics; stress; obesity; diet; and physical inactivity. In 2021, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I chose to resign from my job (for a year) to focus on both my mental and physical health. During this time, I enjoyed coordinating and attending family dinners and vacations; turned my hobby of making jewelry into a successful on-line business; purchased and utilized at-home exercise equipment; and began a medically supervised diet with my husband. With a lot of hard work, we have each lost about one hundred pounds and although I have since returned to my career in oncology, I feel healthier than I have in years.

Today, I am a twenty-eight-year cancer survivor; my kids are now adults, and I have been blessed with grandchildren. Cancer is not just a personal journey it affects the whole family. My husband and children have taken every step with me. I don't take my years for granted, and I am thankful for each day I get to spend with them.”

Curtis Murray
Prostate Cancer

Curtis was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 51 during routine testing for testosterone treatments. Here is his story.

“When my results came back, my prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test results were alarming; a PSA score of 4.0 is considered normal, whereas my score was 18. I was immediately referred to a urologist where a series of tests were ordered including CT scans, x-rays, bone scans, a biopsy, and several invasive probes. This process was embarrassing and challenged my ego and self-confidence. The examining of your most ‘intimate’ areas began to crush my sense of pride. Women routinely go through processes like a small way, I now understand.”

At over 400 lbs., my treatments were postponed, and I was placed on a weight-loss plan to shed enough weight to move forward with a new type of radiation treatment. Unable to lose enough weight in a 90-day window, I was given another referral.

In August of 2022, I began the first of 44 radiation treatments. I am incredibly grateful for the treatment center staff’s gracious and caring nature, as coming in every day to expose your private parts to receive care was daunting in the beginning. Unfortunately, during cancer treatment life doesn’t stop. Both the physical and mental struggles of this condition kept me from performing my job duties as an insurance agent, leading to the loss of job sponsored insurance; luckily, I was able to utilize SoonerCare to complete my treatments. I am thankful that the vote for Medicaid Expansion was successful. I never thought I would be the one who needed it! Financial issues never make medical conditions better. I stayed with my aunt during my treatments as she lives near the treatment center. This relieved the burden of a one-hour daily commute five times per week, for that I am grateful as well

Before this process, I was not aware of the statistics for African American men and prostate cancer.  I found that African American men account for 70% of all new cases of prostate cancer with similar numbers related to those who die from this disease and that experts indicate that prostate cancer is becoming even more aggressive in our demographic. I now use this information and my experiences to mentor and educate others who are going through similar circumstances.

In my humble opinion, treatment for cancer must include a mental health component, not only for the patient, but also how the patient should be treating loved ones and their support system during this health crisis. Controlling how we treat our loved ones and care staff just makes for a healthier environment.

As of May 2023, I am six months post-treatment with an outstanding PSA (1.31). GOD is Good! The treatments were successful! My journey with this disease is not over but it will be on MY terms!

Barbara Neal
Colorectal Cancer

Barbara was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 48. This is her story.

“In 1998, the beginning age for colon cancer screening was 50. I was two years younger than what the guidelines recommended. I had no symptoms except that I was extremely tired. I was commuting to a job I loved and had many activities in my life as well as trying to keep up with a teenage daughter who loved sports. I made excuses for the fatigue and ignored my body warning me there was something wrong. 

There had never been a cancer diagnosis in my family so I really had no idea what symptoms should concern me.  I went to the emergency room for what I thought was an appendectomy and was told later I had stage three colon cancer.  What a shock! 

After surgery, I had six months of chemotherapy. I remember my focus was to just get well. 

I had a huge support system from family, work friends and a rather large church family. I have always been thankful for the support they have given me these past twenty-five years.

Now I work to encourage women to get their breast and cervical cancer screenings. I believe my cancer diagnosis prepared me for this position. When I teach the importance of mammograms and pap testing, I always remind women to KNOW WHAT IS NORMAL for them.  If there is a change in your body, go to your primary care provider and discuss those changes.  It is important to be proactive in your health. 

I have talked to many cancer survivors who have had the same experience I had. They too felt the shock that cancer became a part of their life and the desire to fight to just get well.  As a cancer survivor, I encourage you to take cancer screenings seriously and make them a part of your life.  Early diagnosis is the best diagnosis.”

Brandon Rooks
Former Tobacco User

Brandon began smoking cigarettes in his early twenties. Here is his story.

“I am 47 years old and have been smoking cigarettes for over twenty years. Most of my family members were smokers. In fact, I could count on one hand those family members who do not use some form of tobacco. I was often exposed to cigarette smoke on a regular basis both at home and in the car. This wasn’t a malicious intent on their part, we, as a society, were just starting to become informed of the dangers associated with both second and third-hand smoke. Something so totally foreign today, it was nothing to go to a restaurant where ashtrays were present and have an adult at your or the table next to you light up a cigarette after their meal. The messages that I received from the public were that tobacco itself was for adults, and some adults smoked like my father and some like my mother did not. 

While growing up, we didn’t have all the options that are available today. No vast array of flavors and apparatuses, just regular or menthol, long or shorts, soft or hard packs. One thing that we did have however, was what we know today as targeted or unfair marketing practices to youth. There was this this cartoonish image of a camel named “Joe”. This dude was everywhere, billboards, grocery stores, gas stations. Their cigarette packs came with tickets “camel cash” that you could save and exchange for free merchandise from their catalog like t-shirts, hats, and even lunch boxes.

I have been smoking for so long, I don’t really remember the exact time or place when I first tried smoking, however I do know that when I did, I already had more brand knowledge and access than I should have. As a teen and young adult, I viewed smoking cigarettes to be more of an unattractive nuisance rather than the dangerous habit it is. If I had to pick the one thing that significantly influenced my decision to begin smoking as an adult, it would have to be the opportunity for additional social interactions and temporary release from work tasks at a former organization. This employer offered additional breaks and designated areas for smoking. If you didn’t smoke however, you weren’t allotted those breaks. Not only did you have to pull the work of the coworkers off smoking, but you missed out on all the workplace news. So, it was just a matter of time before I went from playing the part to full-fledged participation.

Although I now fully understand the dangers, remaining smoke free has been an up-hill battle. Nicotine is not only a carcinogen, but a highly addictive chemical within cigarettes. I have lost two beloved aunts and a grandmother to cancers associated with smoking and continue to watch other family members struggle with the effects of smoking or being exposed. My father has congestive heart failure and COPD, my uncle has had an entire lobe of his lung removed from lung cancer, and my sister who has never smoked cigarettes, developed asthma.

Although I am thankfully cancer free, I too suffer from health issues related to smoking. As I write this, I am currently battling high blood pressure and chronic inflammatory lung issues. However, I have recently incorporated some positive healthy lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise.

I highly recommend anyone who is trying to overcome tobacco dependency to talk to your primary care provider or the Quit-Line. The persons I have encountered associated with both, have been both empathetic and non-judgmental.”

Mary Shahan
Breast Cancer Survivor

At 76, Mary is a two time cancer survivor, Cherokee tribal member, wife, mother, and grandmother. This is her story.

“In April 2012, I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was found through a routine mammogram screening in Muskogee Oklahoma. I was then scheduled for a lumpectomy that following May, and to begin radiation treatments in Tulsa OK. During this time, I was working full-time for Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health and although I was using tribal health facilities for most of my health care needs, I also had the benefit of employer-based healthcare insurance.

My cancer care-plan required daily radiation treatments for a total of thirty-two rounds. Added to the mental stress of my diagnosis, I was also physically drained during this time not only because of the treatments themselves, but also each treatment visit was over a 130-mile turnaround, every day. Thankfully, the treatments began to decrease weekly to monthly, monthly to 3 months and then six months.

In October 2019, despite my yearly mammograms being up to date, I noticed some changes to the right breast (site of the 2012 surgery/lumpectomy), so I initiated a consult with my primary care provider, who once again referred me for surgery and treatment in Tulsa. On November 23, 2022, I underwent surgery to remove a nine-inch cancerous mass located in my chest wall. The surgery took over eight hours and required my primary surgeon as well as plastic surgeon, to remove skin from my back to cover the opening from the removal of the tumor and both breasts (for comparison, a grapefruit can measure up to 10 centimeters or 4 inches) This was followed up by 28 more days of radiation, which I finished this past March.

I also developed an infection at the site of the graph on my back which required an emergency procedure. This was very painful and stressful for me, one reason being that this was during the height of Covid so there were no rooms available, and the other being that several services were not covered under my Medicare (A) benefits.

Due to effects from the cancer and related surgeries, I’m a little more tired; a little slower at things that I used to enjoy; which can sometimes get me down but despite all of this, I am grateful to be here and have more time to spend with my family.

My words of wisdom would be for you to not solely rely on your scheduled exams. I am still at a loss for how a mass that large could have gone undetected for so long. Watch for changes in your body (both outside and in); don’t be afraid to talk to your provider; seek a second consult (even when the results are good); and ask about new technology, medications, or treatments.”

Resha Williams Vo
HER2+ Breast Cancer

Resha is a special education teacher at McLain High School, a loving wife, mother, and grandmother. This is her story.

“I have always had good health and made healthy lifestyle choices. However, looming in the background was a family history of breast cancer, which both my grandmother and aunt survived.

On April 22nd, 2020, I received the dreaded phone call no one ever wants to get. I knew things weren’t good when my doctor said, come into the office and “Bring someone with you”. 

I was diagnosed with human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (commonly known as HER2 Positive) found within the duct of my left breast. The timing of this dreaded news could not have been any worse. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and all the media was filled with death rates and hopelessness of a disease that, at the time, had no vaccines and no known cure. During a moment in which I wanted to be all about me, it was difficult to ignore the fear of the entire world.

I could not sleep, eat, or focus. Breast cancer is devastating in so many ways by not only threatening my life but threatening my entire existence and identity as a woman. My own vanity made me fear the devastation of possibly losing my breast and my hair as much as it had me in fear of losing my life. Maybe one of the worst parts of my journey was very simply the timing of my driver’s license renewal. I had lost my hair and eyebrows. I didn’t feel beautiful in any way at all.

But during my treatment, I never missed a day of school, only taking time off to attend my appointments. However, for many, the devastation of this disease goes far beyond the toll on their body. Many do not have health insurance or a job where they can take a paid sick leave. The prospect of financial devastation is a dark cloud hovering over their healing.

I’m thankful that I’m not the first woman to have had breast cancer, because I have been able to lean on the strength of all the women who suffered before me. I am grateful for the Soulful Survivors who have been so much more than just friends. They have been my support, my family, and they have been my peace.”

I would like to be clear that my story is the same story as many of yours. But at the same time, my story is unique to only me. We are together in this as daughters, mothers, sisters, and wives. But what makes each of us unique is how we manage through this struggle.

Member Title Work Group
Dr. Mark Doescher Chair OCCN
Andrea Rooks Co-Chair I OCCN
Vacant Co-Chair II OCCN
Dr. William Dooley Lead Breast Cancer
Heather Carter Co-Lead Breast Cancer
Stephanie Pharr Lead Cervical Cancer/HPV Vaccine
Cristen Hartman Co-Lead Cervical Cancer/HPV Vaccine
Vacant Lead Colorectal Cancer
Vacant Co-Lead Colorectal Cancer
Angelina Hooper Lead Lung Cancer/Tobacco Cessation
Alexis Burris Co-Lead Lung Cancer/Tobacco Cessation