The lessons of cancer
Toben Anderson goes through life not knowing how much longer it will take for cancer to strike again. She’s faced cancer three times and death, once. She’s endured the most ravaging chemotherapy treatment only to find another lump in her body.
Cancer has struck again and again. Still – after being told three times she has cancer – Anderson says the disease has made her life better.
“It’s been a gift,” says the 45-year-old woman from Calgary, who was first diagnosed with cancer when she was 36. “Before cancer, I lived a life full of stress trying to be Ms. Perfect. Cancer made me realize how precious every day is. We all have a choice, you can look at everything positively. Most people with cancer don’t see it that way.”
The first time cancer invaded Anderson’s breasts.
“I found a lump sitting on my rib. It was the size of a pea,” she says. “When the biopsy came back the doctor said, “You’re fighting for your life’.”
Although only one of her breasts was affected, Anderson chose to get both removed.
“They gave me choices, but there was the risk of getting it on the other breast, so I opted for a full mastectomy,” she says.
“It kills you’
Less than five years later, cancer came back. This time, stronger. It had spread through the lymphatic system and Anderson had four tumors in her liver.
“When it came back, I had no statistical chance of survival because it had metastasized to my liver,” she says. “When it gets to the liver, it kills you.”
This time, one of the treatment options was stem cell transplant therapy, a double-edged sword that also could’ve killed her.
“Cancer is a horrible disease, but the treatment is probably worse than the illness” said Anderson, who is also an inspirational speaker. She was invited by the Vail Valley Medical Center earlier this month to talk about cancer awareness and survival.
Stem cell transplants involve treatments with high doses of chemotherapy that totally depresses cells produced in the bone marrow. The chemotherapy is then followed by an infusion of healthy stem cells from the patient or from a donor.
“When you’re almost dead, they reinject you with stem cells,” Anderson says.
The treatment that Anderson got in Canada isn’t available anymore because of conflicting opinions on its success, says Marty Suarez, a spokeswoman for the Vail Valley Medical Center.
“Some studies have shown poor results,” Anderson says. “It’s risky and brutal, but it worked.”
Weeks after the therapy, an ultrasound showed that Anderson’s liver was completely healed. She was in remission, the doctor told her.
“If you don’t relapse in two years, they figure out you’re cured,” she says. “The first two years you’re living hanging by your fingernails. It takes a long time to heal.”
To heal, at least spiritually, Anderson joined an American team that climbed the 16,000 foot-Vincent Massif, the tallest mountain in Antartica. The climb was to spread awareness of breast cancer.
“By raising awareness, there’s research going on,” she says. “Without research, I’d have been dead nine years ago.”
After that, Anderson swapped a fashion-design career for a motivational speaking. She also married her husband, who she met while training to climb Vincent Massif.
“Toben’s story is unique because she has survived several types of cancer,” Suarez says. “Her message is the same as VVMC’s: Take responsibility for your health.”
But her struggle against cancer wasn’t yet over. The cancer came back in April. This time, it was just a lump under her arm.
“The doctor said my cancer seemed to be a chronic disease for me,” Anderson says.
Six weeks of radiation five times a week, combined with drugs, followed the new diagnosis.
“Another side of awareness is to let women know to take care of themselves,” Anderson adds. “Our health is our responsibility. The way you behave matters. You need to educate yourself.”
To Anderson, cancer was the beginning of a new life.
“Having the threat hanging over my head taught me that this is the important moment. Cancer has been a catalyst,” she says. “Instead of asking myself, “Why me?’ I ask myself, “Why not me?'”
Her struggle for survival story is the framework for her inspirational talks – 90 percent of them are for corporate clients such as Microsoft.
“What I try to tell people is, your life is yours and is happening right now,” Anderson says. “I spent years thinking how I can cure my cancer. Every time it comes back I say, “OK, teach me more.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.