Local News

The good news about cancer Survivors are living longer

SEBRING - It was more than three years ago, around the same time as those enlarged prostate commercials were appearing on TV, that Dan Echols, then 58, noticed problems. He went to a local doctor, who said that enlarged prostates were a common problem for men his age. "So I dismissed it and went about my business," said Echols. But the problem kept getting worse. Then blood appeared in his urine. A second doctor treated him for an infection.
The problem didn't go away. Finally, he was sent for a CT scan. They found a golf-ball sized tumor in his bladder. The doctor wanted to admit him to the hospital and remove his bladder. That easy fix would have meant wearing a collection bag the rest of his life. Instead, Echols went to Dr. Inoel Rivera Ramirez in Orlando, who scraped the bladder as thin as paper. "Luckily, the cancer had not gone through the bladder wall," said Echols, who works on fiber optics for CenturyLink. Decades ago, when the word cancer whispered it usually meant the victim had received a death sentence. Today, nearly 12 million Americans - about 4 percent of the population - are still alive after being told they have cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control. "About two-thirds are expected to live at least five years after diagnosis." "The tumor was so big that nobody thought I'd make it," Echols said. "I ended up in Orlando Cancer Center. Dr. Rivera performed three separate surgeries to get it all out. He really knew what he was doing." Echols spent six days in the hospital and 15 weeks of chemotherapy. "It was rough," Echols said. "Really rough." The chemicals ate the interior of his bladder, seeking cells that divide rapidly - a characteristic common to cancer. "It's like fire. There was a time when I wanted to stop it. And the doctor said, 'You're a pretty young man. We've got a lot invested in you. We don't want to mess it up now.'" During chemotherapy, white blood cell counts are low, so cancer patients are at greater risk of infections. Chemo also harms or kills bone marrow and digestive tract cells, because they also divide rapidly. So do hair follicles, which is why hair falls out. Echols didn't lose his hair. He thinks that's because the chemo was so localized. The number of cancer survivors is growing for several reasons, including doctors' ability to find cancer earlier, diagnose cancer more accurately, and treat cancer more effectively, the CDC said. Better follow up care after cancer treatment, fewer deaths from other causes, and an aging U.S. population contribute to the large number of cancer survivors. Men are less likely to survive cancer for two reasons: prostate cancer is common among older men, who have a statistically shorter lifespan remaining when they are diagnosed. Women are more likely to survive because breast and cervical cancers usually occur at a younger age, can be found earlier, and can be treated successfully, the CDC said. Carol Willard is a case in point. No one in her family had ever had cancer, but a lump was found 10 years ago during a routine mammography. Then 52, she chose to remove both breasts. On Friday, the Kindergarten Center teacher called from Alaska, where she was RVing with her daughter, son and daughter-in-law. After a decade of checkups, the doctor has told her there's no need to come back. She attributes her long-term survival to God's plan, her decision, and to a positive mental attitude. Echols will continue his checkups for another seven years. "I go back every three months for him to see if the tumor has come back. Nothing so far. He says I'm a rare case," Echols said. "A lot of things fell into place for me. All those symptoms I had are all gone. My bladder function is okay." Both Echols and Willard firmly feel they'll live their normal life spans. Echols is going to make sure of it. "The doctor told me he was 99 percent it was caused from smoking." He had smoked since he was 7. The doctor explained that bladder cancer is common among smokers because the liver pulls out the tars and nicotines and dumps those poisons in the bladder. "And it just sits there," Echols said. "The doctor said if I didn't quit, he was 70 percent sure the cancer would come back, and that it be more aggressive next time around. I quit smoking that day, and I haven't touched one since." Willard's advice for every woman: get those checkups. She never felt the cancer, and may not have known if not for the mammography. Echols' advice: "If you smoke, stop. Stop while you still can. I got lucky, a lot of people don't. I've a friend who had the very same thing. He won't stop. It's probably going to kill him." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828