Survivors Unite Together to Thrive

Four cancer survivors from across the U.S. share their stories and perspective on what it means to celebrate life

By Katie Ressler

Text Size

On the first Sunday each June, the world unites to commemorate what it means to overcome cancer, under the banner of National Cancer Survivors Day.

Earning the title of “cancer survivor” is no easy feat, starting with facing the words, “you have cancer.” Between the stress associated with tests and the challenges that come with treatments, facing cancer requires strength, perseverance and patience. Survivorship is an incredible achievement, worth celebrating to the fullest.

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), the annual celebration for 5-year cancer survivors, called “Celebrate Life” is the most anticipated event of the year for everyone involved,  including doctors, nurses, additional CTCA® staff, and most importantly, five-year survivors, their families and friends.

Many of these 5-year survivors recall hearing about Celebrate Life shortly after visiting CTCA. Some even experienced the event while they were at the hospital during treatment. Time and again, they share that this event, specifically, inspired and motivated them throughout their cancer treatment.

We checked in with four of the survivors who participated in Celebrate Life 2019 to hear their thoughts on this special event, what it means to be a survivor, and what inspires them.

The Celebrants

Michael Pinell, MD, is the lead physician in the urgent care center at CTCA Atlanta and a stage IV small and large B cell lymphoma survivor. He came to CTCA Atlanta for treatment in 2014 and Dr. Brion Randolph recommended very intensive chemotherapy with RV-CHOP for 6 months ending January 2015. After his experience at CTCA, he decided to shift his career, devoting his work to treating cancer patients’ complications with CTCA at the urgent care center.

Sharri B. is a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor who came to CTCA Philadelphia after doing extensive research on her treatment options. After meeting with Dr. Topolsky and hearing his recommended treatment plan, she felt more confident about her journey.

Fran B. is an avid runner who enjoyed long-distance races before her breast cancer diagnosis. After coming to CTCA Tulsa in 2014 for treatment, Fran has thrived and has gone on to run 22 marathon races across the world.

Ted L. is a three-time cancer survivor. In 1981, he faced and beat testicular cancer. Then, in 2014, he learned he had bladder cancer. He began his journey at CTCA Chicago in May of 2014 where he underwent chemotherapy and surgery. During his neobladder surgery, his team discovered he also had prostate cancer, which they removed during the same surgery.

Tell me what the Celebrate Life event means to you:

Dr. Pinell: This event marks a milestone of five years, celebrating overcoming my cancer diagnosis and restoration of health to my mind and body.

Sharri B.: It is such a positive affirmation that I am still living and thriving despite my cancer battle. It’s also an excellent reminder and a lovely reward that there is much about life to celebrate! I’m very thankful to be included.

Fran: I’ve been looking forward to this event since my CTCA journey began. I sat at a table with Dr. Shrestha and others during my first year here – when I was going through treatment and we talked about how I would be part of the event in 5 years.

Ted: The Celebrate Life event means that I can continue doing things that I love. Becoming a five-year cancer survivor is a giant step in my lifetime. Spending time with my 92-year-old mom and helping her with every day struggles… spending quality time with my family and friends.

What are ways that you celebrate life in your everyday routine?

Dr. Pinell: Every day, I celebrate life starting with my morning prayer thanking Jesus for healing my body and soul and providing me with a job to treat cancer patients at CTCA Atlanta Urgent Care to share hope and empathize with them.

Fran: I wake up every day and thank God for the day. Each day is a blessing. Another way I celebrate life is through running. I have run 24 full marathons (26.2 miles). Of those, 22 have been completed since my diagnosis.  I just was awarded the Abbott World Marathon Majors Medal after completing the top six marathons in the world: Boston, Chicago, New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin. Everywhere I go, I use this platform as an opportunity.

This year’s theme for Celebrate Life is “Unite & Thrive.” Based on your experience, why is it important for people to unite when it comes to cancer?

Dr. Pinell: People need to unite in a community with other cancer patients, their families, and cancer survivors.  It helps instill hope and faith to overcome in their fight against cancer.

Sharri: I found that when I got my cancer diagnosis, I felt very alone. I had people driving me to appointments etc., but they didn’t understand what it was like to be a cancer fighter. Connecting with other people who are in the fight is encouraging, it strengthens you, and then you can do the same for others. It is so beneficial to you mentally and emotionally.

Fran: For me, it is about community: the CTCA community, and my incredible caregiver and support community.  Everyone united to help me on my journey. From remembering my pills, to taking me to my appointments at CTCA, to praying with me and standing with me… it’s all about unity.

Ted: It is very important for us to unite and thrive together because we have to win our battles against cancer. By being united and thriving, we, cancer fighters, can accomplish almost everything!

What does it mean to Thrive during treatment? What about during survivorship?

Dr. Pinell: To me, thriving during cancer treatment occurs when a patient defeats the cancer by beating its menacing symptoms of nausea, fatigue, weakness, depression and the fear of death.

Sharri: Thriving during treatment for me was constantly being aware of taking care of myself. I chose to eat very nutritious food, took supplements, prayed and meditated on God’s Word, especially verses about healing and comfort. I tried to keep my mind on positive things, noticing every little blessing that came my way, whether it was the beauty of the fish tank at CTCA, a card from someone who cared, or just the kindness of my team. Thriving during survivorship is similar. I do all the same things, but now that my strength is back, I can hike and do the things I enjoy. I try to get outside as much as I can; a walk in the woods can do wonders for refreshing your spirit.

Fran: Thriving is continuing with your life, doing your best at what you’ve always been doing.  For me it’s running, working, spending time with friends and family. It continuing to enjoy life. 

What has being a Cancer Fighter® at CTCA meant to you during your journey?

Sharri: After my diagnosis, I did a ton of research and found the best treatment recommended for my cancer. Then I researched like crazy for a facility that I could go to that would give me the treatment and care that I needed. That’s how I found CTCA. My team and other Cancer Fighters walked right by my side through my treatments. I always felt that they cared about me, which was very comforting.

Ted: Shortly after I started my journey at CTCA in May of 2014, I signed up to join Cancer Fighters. Being a Cancer Fighter, for me, is inspirational. It’s motivated me to be strong and fight cancer even more. At the same time, it has been healing for me because I talk to many patients whose lives were disrupted by cancer. Most of them have had stories about cancer that begin very sadly. But, after they came to CTCA and started their journey, many end up with happy endings. Thanks to Cancer Fighters, it is a great pleasure to get together with so many cancer survivors at the same time and same place to share stories.