Each year, through the combination of research, early diagnosis and continually more focused treatments prove that cancer is no longer a death sentence but rather a treatable disease. The following two local survivors show an often-overlooked face of cancer: Those who are struck young and go on to live long, full lives. Both stress the importance of a positive outlook and both are celebrating new lives, those of their children – both under a year of age. Let us celebrate the additions to their families, their lives and those of the doctors and scientists who every day bring us closer to a cure.
In August 2001, at the age of 22, cancer was the last thing on Sunny Duggins’ mind. She had just returned from traveling around Europe and was getting ready to enter her senior year at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Unfortunately, a string of seemingly unrelated symptoms set her back dramatically. For six months, Duggins had been feeling feverish and had been experiencing itchy hands and feet, along with weight loss and fatigue.
“These symptoms would all come and go,” she says. Most of her doctors were looking at the symptoms individually – stress was blamed for weight loss, food allergies were blamed for the itchiness and Duggins was repeatedly told that she was overall in good health. “I just kind of gave up trying to figure out what was wrong with me,” she says. But one night she found a lump in her neck by her collarbone. Initially she dismissed it as a swollen lymph node, but she brought it up during a routine checkup with Dr. Clisham a few weeks later. Clisham, an Ob/Gyn, did some research and said Duggins should get blood work done.
After a biopsy, Duggins was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The prognosis was good. Hodgkin’s is easily curable in most cases. But Duggins’ confidence had been shaken by repeated assurances that her symptoms were not signs of anything serious.
“I felt like I was living in a dream,” says Duggins. “I felt alone – extremely alone.” While her friends were dealing with “what guy to date and what class to take,” Duggins was facing cancer. Initially, she withdrew from her friends and relied heavily on her family. But the closest of her friends were unwilling to let her survive on stoicism alone. “They persisted and are still my best friends to this day,” she says.
Duggins moved back to New Orleans for five months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment after undergoing tests in both New Orleans and Palo Alto, Calif.
She found inner strength and knew she was going to get through it. “Life dealt me this hand and it was up to me how to play it,” she says. “I choose to live by the motto ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’” It is a phrase she repeated constantly to herself, through all the surgeries, shots, sickness and pain.
Reading and attending LSU football games helped her through the ordeal of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. “I went to every game without fail, even if I felt terrible,” she says. She also still went to dinner and parties with her friends. “I tried to lead as normal of a life as I could.”
The cancer has come and gone but the important parts of Duggins’ life remain. She now has her own family to care for – an 11-month-old daughter named Cole. She works for Action Coach, a business consulting firm. She still reads when she gets the chance and, of course, follows LSU football with a passion.
Michael Milling’s wife, Caroline, says her husband’s laugh is contagious. “He lives his life with humor and he is the rock of our family.”
Back in 1993, Milling’s humor and stability proved to be powerful weapons against the testicular cancer with which he was diagnosed. At the time, Milling, who had not yet met his future wife, was working in the construction business and “trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life.” His diagnosis had a 70 to 90 percent cure rate; the experimental chemotherapy he went through was attempting to make it 100 percent.
Initially, he was afraid. “There were a few moments of pure fear that were difficult to get myself out of,” he admits. “But I tried as quickly as I could to turn my anxieties into positives. I knew my mental state was essential to my treatment.” Undergoing 12 weeks of chemotherapy is undoubtedly agonizing; nevertheless Milling met it with bravery and even found that laughing at some of the bizarre experiences took the edge off. “I never looked so good bald,” he jokes of the side effects. “As odd as it may seem, I tried my best to keep humor involved in the entire process.”
Milling thanks his family and friends, who supported him unconditionally. “The amount of love that was shown to me was unbelievable,” he says earnestly. The support he received from loved ones also affected his life path. “I think that it really steered me in the direction of being a teacher,” he says. “I was blown away by the number of people who reached out to help me during this time.” Many of them, he says, were people he hadn’t seen in years and some were people he had just met. Today, he teaches math at Newman School and is also head basketball coach. “I felt that I wanted to return the favor in some fashion and teaching seemed the best way to do this.” He says it also made him want to see the world, appreciate the little things in life and generally “see life outside the box.”
In 2002, Milling met Caroline. “On our very first date, Milling came right out and told me about his cancer,” she remembers. “It was the last thing I expected to hear and his courage, honesty and warmth won me over right then and there.”
Milling advises anyone with cancer to “stay positive and attack it head-on. You will and can survive.” He also advocates donating funds for cancer research. “With enough funds, we can beat this disease,” he says.
Today, Milling enjoys keeping up with the Saints and the Hornets and spending time with his and Caroline’s 10-month-old son. Caroline, ever the loving wife, is full of praise. “Someone once told me that you want to marry a person who makes you the best person you can be,” she says. “Michael challenges me to do this every single day.”
American Cancer Society
469-0021, (800) ACS-2345
Louisiana Breast Cancer Task Force
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
455-7310, (817) GO-KOMENwww.komen.org
Oct. 8. New Advances in Breast Reconstruction. Segment of EnCourage support group meetings, 899-2800 or (888) 899-2288. Held at the Center for Reconstructive Breast Surgery.
Oct. 11. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Annual non-competitive walk to raise awareness about breast cancer, (800) ACS-2345. Held at New Orleans Lakefront.
Oct. 15. Saks Fifth Avenue New Orleans Key to the Cure 2008 Kick-off Gala. Ceremonial opening of the KTTC shopping weekend (Oct. 16-19) to benefit the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium.
Held at Saks Fifth Avenue at the Shops at Canal Place.
Oct. 19. Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Annual race benefits the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, 455-7310. Held in City Park.
Oct. 25. Think Pink! Night: “Party with a Purpose”. Auction and concert to benefit Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, 260-9797. Held at Generations Hall.