Thanks to an emphasis on early diagnosis, combined with more targeted, effective treatments, cancer is becoming a treatable disease for millions of people. A trio of local survivors wants to get the message out to everybody: you can fight cancer successfully. It helps a lot, they say, to have a positive attitude, the support of loving friends and family members, and a great medical team on your side.
Mimi Heebe, age 44, had to summon up a positive attitude not once, but twice—Heebe faced breast cancer when she was just 26, and then coped with a return of the disease at age 40. Heebe was first diagnosed with cancer during a routine doctor visit; she was too young to have begun regular mammograms. She had a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Then, 14 years later, a mammogram detected a return of the cancer in the same breast.“I felt like it shouldn’t have happened,” she says, since she had taken an aggressive approach the first time around. This time she had breast removal and reconstructive surgery, plus chemotherapy. She had all her treatment locally, and says she feels very fortunate to have had such capable physicians. Heebe says her second round of chemotherapy was verydifferent from the first. She lost her hair, which hadn’t happened before, but she felt less ill, and for a shorter period of time. In between her two illnesses, Heebe, a local real-estate agent, married Odom Heebe and had three children: Everett, 7 1/2; Buckner, 6 1/2; and Douglas, 5. She credits her family and friends—especially her husband, Odom—for helping her get through her ordeal. Cancer treatment can be a lot to cope with, she says, and people shouldn’t be shy about accepting help when it is offered.Now, as a member of the Executive Leadership Councilof the American Cancer Society, Heebe wants to help others with the disease. She is especially excited about Hope Lodge, a 34-suite home on River Road built by the ACSto provide free lodging for cancer patients who are in town for treatment.The ACS has so many other helpful programs, such as “Look Good, Feel Better,” which helps women deal with the side effects of cancer treatments, Heebe says, and she encourages anyone who wants to get involved with this important work to check out the society’s Web site, www.cancer.org, and find out more.
Darryl Berger Jr.
Darryl Berger Jr. also faced a cancer diagnosis at a very young age. Berger was just 16, a sophomore in high school, when he began feeling weak. His chest hurt, and he had trouble breathing. During football season, his condition worsened, and during Christmas vacation in Colorado he became so ill that his parents, Darryl and Louellen Berger, took him to a doctor. X-rays revealed several large tumors in his chest, and the doctor suspected “some form of cancer.”
Immediately, Berger and family returned to New Orleans, where the teenager underwent tests, biopsies, surgery, and seven months of chemotherapy. “I was a full-fledged cancer patient,” Berger remembers.
Berger had Hodgkin’s Disease, a lymphatic cancer, which was in Stage 4. The good news, if there can be any good news with this type of diagnosis, was that this is a highly treatable cancer with a good prognosis. Berger was cared for at Children’s Hospital, where he says the staff was “just incredible.” He was especially inspired by the sight of much younger, sicker patients who dealt with their ordeal so well. Today, Berger feels great and leads an active, busy life. He is a real-estate developer/investor at Berger Co. and is married to Colleen Berger.
In generations past, Berger says, his illness might have been fatal. His message is one of gratitude and a belief in maintaining a positive outlook toward the future. Berger adds that he is very fortunate to have had such a supportive family and such excellent medical care during his illness.
Irma ThomasThe message local music icon Irma Thomas wants everybody to get is simple: “Don’t neglect your health.” When she was in her twenties, Thomas had a Pap smear—a routine test for cervical cancer—that came back positive. She was treated, and she has had negative Pap smears ever since. Both of her parents also had cancer. Her father passed away from the disease in 1989, but her mother, 90, is a cancer survivor.Thomas says she can’t emphasize enough the importance of regular medical checkups. “We lead such a rushed, stressed lifestyle,” she says. Too often, people allow the obligations of their jobs and families to come first and put off doctor visits until later. The problem is, waiting until later can mean waiting too late to catch cancer or other serious diseases when they are most curable, she says. In these post-Katrina times, when many people have lost their health insurance or don’t have access to their regular doctors, Thomas urges them to take a day off from work—even if they have to and sit and wait at a public health care facility—because they will get such vital tests as Pap smears and mammograms.Some people avoid doctor visits and tests because they are afraid of whatthey’ll find out. “Put aside your fears,” Thomas says. “Remember how many folks around you want you here.” Remember too, she says, that many serious diseases don’t have any symptoms at first. Hypertension, for example, is often called a “silent killer,” and simply having your blood pressure taken can reveal this dangerous condition.Thomas was chosen honorary chairman of this year’s Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure,” an annual event that raises money for and awareness of breast cancer.
American Cancer Society
469-0021. For 24 hour
information, 800/ACS-2345; www.cancer.org
Louisiana Breast Cancer Task Force
National Breast Cancer
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Oct. 7. Komen Race for the Cure. An annual race to benefit Susan G. Komen for the
Cure Foundation, 455-7310, www.komenneworleans.com. Held in City Park.
Oct. 10. EnCourage support meetings. The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery will host its second meeting in an open series of monthly support groups, 583-5550.
Oct. 13. Cancer Crusaders Fall Gala, “Wishing on a Star- Working for a Cure,”
benefit for Cancer Crusaders, 456-9401.
Held at New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel.
Oct. 14. Pink Ribbon Regatta, benefit
for Louisiana Breast Cancer Task Force, 914-1472.
Hosted by the Lake Pontchartrain Women’s Sailing Assoc. at Southern
Oct. 17-21. Saks Fifth Avenue’s Key to the Cure and Kickoff Gala, benefit for Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium (LCRC), 988-6592.
Held at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Oct. 18. Annual Salute to Survivors Luncheon, benefit for Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, 445-7310, www.komenneworleans.com.
Held at the Sheraton Hotel.
Don’t forget to check local hospitals for special screenings and programs this month.
– compiled by Kathy Martinez