Because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to take a look at the inspirational stories of two New Orleanians who have fought or are still battling cancer. One common element between these two stories is the surprisingly positive and confident outlook they share towards the disease (both people we profiled said they chose to look at cancer as “an inconvenience”) and how that perspective is so crucial to becoming a cancer survivor.
Photography by Jeffery Johnston
Kathy Singleton spent her adult life taking care of others – as a social worker supervising Foster Care for the state of Louisiana, as a mother of two and as a grandmother of four. But when she discovered a lump on her breast during a self-examination, she suddenly found the tables turned.
“I was so lucky to have a wonderful family,” she says.
Singleton was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago and could scarcely believe it. “I told him, ‘Oh, no. You must be wrong. My family always dies from heart trouble; we don’t have cancer.’ But he was correct. I did have the big ‘C’.”
The tumor was relatively small, she says, but very aggressive and required immediate lumpectomy surgery. “I was very lucky,” she says.
Her next step involved finding the perfect oncologist. “This is someone I would be spending lots of time with and it was important to have someone who’s personality was a match.” Fortunately, she found Dr. Jay Brook at Ochsner. “He had done a lot of work with the American Cancer Society, was very knowledgeable and was the kind of guy that would give me a hug when I needed it.”
Singleton then began the painful process of harsh chemotherapy and radiation. “At this point I had to decide how I was going to do this cancer thing,” she says. “I decided to call it my ‘inconvenience,’ as it is quite inconvenient! It takes at least a year out of your life and is all-consuming.
“I cut my thick black hair really short (the Halle Berry look), bought a wig and started chemo. One of the worst parts is having all your hair fall out. I would sit in the shower (and) hold my hair as it fell out by the handful and cry.”
While such experiences were painful, she developed a surprisingly positive new perspective: “Today I tell people, you will never worry about bad hair days if you have ever been bald. Just be happy you have hair.”
Singleton completed chemotherapy and then faced her first rounds of radiation. “I have a lot of trouble sitting still, so I knew that long-term treatment would be a problem,” she says.
She underwent Brachytherapy, a method that may seem unconventional, but one that suited Singleton’s lifestyle. “Instead of weeks of radiation, little tubes were inserted in my breast (and) filled with radioactive pellets, and I was put behind a lead wall in the hospital for a week.” She somehow even managed to keep her sense of humor: “Anyone that came to see me had to sit behind the lead wall, and of course I joked that I would glow in the dark.”
Singleton has not only found silver linings, but she also helped create them for others. She volunteers at the Patrick F. Taylor Hope Lodge (which our other Cancer Warrior, Philip Rebowe, helped create), participates in Key for the Cure and is a member of Cancer Crusaders. She is also involved with the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System; Louisiana Trustees Educational Council; Raintree Children and Family Services; New Orleans Opera Association; Women’s Guild; BRAVO; Arts Council; Contemporary Arts Center; and Preservation Resource Center.
Part of Singleton’s silver lining is choosing to embrace life to the fullest after her recovery. “Having cancer changed my life in some positive ways,” she says. “I started doing some of the things I had always wanted to do, but kept putting off. I stood on the Great Wall of China, watched the sun come up over Machu Picchu and climbed the tallest pyramid in South America.”
While travel has been fulfilling, the most satisfying experience is a little closer to home. “The most important thing that I do in my life now is enjoy my family. Adventure is fun, but nothing beats the hug from your granddaughter when you show up at her school chapel.”
It’s hard for her to sweat the small stuff now. “I get accused of being too flippant, but when you have had the ‘inconvenience’ I had, most day to day stuff just doesn’t matter.”
Her advice to people facing her situation? “Have regular check ups. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, act quickly.”
And some words for everyone to live by: “Try to smile and always accept any hug that you are offered.”
During Super Bowl XLIV, Philip Rebowe was probably the only New Orleanian who was rooting against the Saints. The Baton Rouge-born CPA and head of Rebowe and Company had been battling polycythemia – a blood disorder that some consider a form of cancer – for more than a decade, when he made a peculiar plea.
“When I was really sick, praying through this process, I asked the Lord to let me live long enough to see the Saints win the Super Bowl,” Rebowe says. “I thought that would buy me another 30 years …”
Rebowe was diagnosed in the early 1990s with a bleak prognosis. “Most people who have polycythemia are in their late 60s, early 70s, and they live a few years, then they die,” he says. “When I was diagnosed, they told me I had a couple years to live.”
He refused to accept this sentence and began seeking treatment from multiple physicians. “They put me on a fairly new drug that had just come out,” Rebowe says. “I got lucky – I reacted well to the medicine and it slowed down my disease.”
Rebowe then entered a period of relative good health and remission, only to be disrupted in August 2005. “It was almost 12, 13 years later, when I was supposed to have been dead a long time ago. Right after (Hurricane) Katrina … I started getting blood clots and infections, mainly in my legs.”
Faced with very few options, Rebowe requested a bone marrow transplant, but his doctors refused. “They gave me 100 reasons why I’m not a candidate,” he says. In fact, doctors told him to enjoy his last months with his family.
Instead, he made it his mission to fight the disease, which meant seeking a second opinion, and a third – more than he could count – until finding a doctor in Cleveland, Ohio, who agreed to perform a transplant – though under the counsel that a positive outcome was very unlikely – if he flew up immediately. “My house was destroyed and my firm was in shambles after Katrina. I tried to get as much organized as I could before going up there.”
Rebowe underwent the transplant using bone marrow from his sister – the only sibling of three who was a match – and was placed in an isolation ward. Within hours, though, Rebowe was testing the limits of his newfound vitality.
“I’m big into exercise and after (the transplant), I felt great. I guess I always felt great through this whole process; I never felt like I was sick or I was dying.” His nurse found him running on a treadmill while still hooked up to IVs, mere hours after surgery. “I didn’t want to stop jogging because I felt like if I stopped jogging, I was going to die.”
He quickly experienced negative side effects, including Graft-versus-host disease when his body began rejecting his sister’s stem cells. “It shut down my whole intestinal system. My skin literally turned black and scaly and itchy,” he says. “I got the last rites three times in an eight month period.”
Despite the odds, the doctors’ claims and his continuing reactions (he couldn’t swallow or eat and he weighed 90 pounds at one point), he pulled through, amazingly, without the help of morphine or painkillers, which he continually refused.
Rebowe says the hardest part of fighting the disease wasn’t the painful procedures or the uncertain future, but becoming close to other patients who passed away. “You get close to everybody in that ward because you have no other person to talk to … We’d all give each other encouragement and talk about our situations. I watched a lot of people die. … There were people there who were younger than me, stronger than me, with more to live for, had a better attitude – which I had a good attitude, I had a great attitude the whole time – and they died.”
After finally returning to New Orleans, Rebowe was determined not to lose his quality of life. “I’m still looking at some major challenges in the near future but I feel great, I’m continuing on and I’m active. I travel, I have fun. I look at this disease almost as an inconvenience and just deal with it. I want to try and help others with it.”
One way he helps others is through his role with the American Cancer Society. He’s been involved for several years, serving as chairman of the board last year and corporate sponsorship chair this year. “We built the Hope Lodge, which was a big endeavor,” Rebowe says. “Last year we raised more money than we’ve ever raised before in the local community.” He is also a founding member and past chairman of Jefferson Dollars For Scholars, which has raised several million dollars in scholarships to Jefferson students; a member of Greater New Orleans Executives Association; a founding member and past chairman of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce; and a board member and former treasurer of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society.
Rebowe says he draws inspiration from a Japanese proverb: “Fall seven times and stand up eight.”
“On a daily basis, sometimes I literally fall down and many times you get bad news from doctors … You’ve just got to keep standing up because if you don’t, no one’s going to pick you up and you’re not going to get up. You’ve got setbacks, (but) you’ve got to pull yourself through it.”
“As far as quality of life, my life is great,” he says. “I’ve got my firm back up, I’ve rebuilt my house. I exercise every day. I travel.” And now he can cheer for the Saints again, too.