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Woman survives scary lung cancer diagnosis and finds new lif


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Six months to live.

Mary Jo Grand sat in the sterile exam room.

The tumors spat out by her undiagnosed lung cancer had lit up the PET scan — dense black splotches throughout her lungs and arms and abdomen and neck and chest.

The doctor was talking. Grim, horrible statistics. Treatment. Experimental medicine.

Grand hadn’t heard much after “six” and “months.”

She interrupted. Do you know of anyone else who has survived this cancer? She cringed at the sound of her own desperation.

Dr. Greg Kalemkerian looked at her. One other person, he said.

Grand extended her hand: “Let me introduce you to No. 2.”

That was 2008.

Not only is Grand of Garden City still around, but she has spent the intervening time since her cancer diagnosis raising funds and awareness for the single deadliest cancer. This year, lung cancer is expected to kill about the same number of women as breast, colon and ovarian cancer combined. Just 17% of lung cancer patients are alive five years after diagnosis.

And within the realm of cancer, lung cancer is the one that carries a huge stigma because of its association with smoking. About 80% of cases are in smokers or former smokers.

“It’s the first question every time: ‘Are you a smoker?’ It’s almost accusatory. It made me cry in the beginning. It’s hard enough to get the diagnosis, let alone facing those who give you that ‘I’ll-take-my-compassion-elsewhere’ look.”

Sharing her story

By the time Grand was diagnosed she hadn’t smoked regularly for 15 years.

She had never smoked heavily; rather she grew up in a time that — she laughs now — when kids played around a knot of moms in “beehive hairdos and a cloud of cigarette smoke.”

Grand is a patient advocate for the Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center, talking newly diagnosed patients through their panic.

She has twice organized fund-raisers for patients with lung cancer at the University of Michigan, bringing in more than $42,000 for U-M’s work with lung cancer patients — among the largest donations to date. She is now starting to plan for another fund-raiser in spring 2015.

And she has shared her story at events sponsored by the American Cancer Society and Lungevity, a Chicago-based nonprofit that raises funds for lung cancer research.

But the more proximate reasons for her continued fight for others?

That’s Tom Grand.

He’s the man she fell in love with when she first saw him in bell-bottom jeans and leather moccasins in a friend’s basement. It was the 1970s. He was the lead singer and harmonica player in a local band.

Daughter, Amber, now 32, and her son, Travis, 29 — they’re the other reasons.

In the family’s Garden City living room in 2008, Tom and Mary Jo leaned on each other as they faced loved ones who had gathered to hear what they hoped would be good news after initial lab tests.

Instead: Lung cancer. Late stage. Six months.

It didn’t seem possible for a woman who biked and hiked. A former PTA president who more recently had been working 60 hours a week.

Travis, a student at Wayne State University, stared at the carpet.

“I just remember ‘I have cancer.’ I just couldn’t process it,” said Travis Grand, now an advertising copy editor.

Amber Grand collapsed to her knees, sobbing.

“You think that getting the diagnosis is bad,” said Grand. “Try telling the news to your kids. Then, that’s when it’s really, really bad. It was the hardest thing I’ve done my entire life.”

Learning her diagnosis

The nightmare began when — as she hurriedly showered on the way to meet friends and watch her daughter sing the national anthem for a Tigers game — Grand’s soapy fingertips found a small knot on the right side of her neck.

Her coworkers urged her to check it out.

At the time, Grand was an event planner for the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. In fact, she’d just wrapped up its signature fund-raising event, Women’s Football Academy, which supports patients at the center and their families.

She chalked up the recent exhaustion and unexplained sores on her arm to stress and long hours. But then again...

“It was the kind of fatigue where you know that you have to stop at the grocery store on the way home, but .... You. Just. Can’t,” she said.

She was sitting at her desk in early September when the doctor called after a series of tests.

“She said, ‘Mary Jo, you have cancer,’ ” Grand said.

She did the only thing she knew to do that that moment — “put my head between my knees because I honestly thought I was going to pass out.”

“I thought, ‘This is how it works? This isn’t how it happens in the movies. I’m supposed to be in the office with my husband holding my hands.’ ”

Days later, Tom and Mary Jo Grand, in fact, were in the doctor’s office, the results of a biopsy confirming the worst.

Dr. Kalemkerian was talking about a clinical trial, led by Detroit’s Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, in which patients received a novel combination of three chemo drugs.

Days later, after hours of computer research, phone calls and prayers, the Grands decided they had little to lose.

Lung cancer is notoriously resistant to standard treatment, so the trial was a sliver of hope. Plus, even if it didn’t work, perhaps she could help build the research that would help others to survive after her.

“I thought ‘If I’m going to die and die quickly, then maybe here’s the purpose to this. Maybe I can help the people behind me,’ ” she said, recently from the bright, neat kitchen of her Garden City home.

There were 11 rounds of experimental chemo and radiation — the sort of grueling treatment and deep fatigue that forced her to leave her U-M job. Tom began juicing kale and beets and bok choy and carrots — setting the glass in front of her as often as she would allow him.

“It was like drinking dirt,” she said.

Surprising the Grands as well as her doctors — it seemed to have worked.

The cancer disappears

Less than a year later, PET scans could find no trace of the cancer. In 2013, when a single tumor reappeared in her lung, she chose to undergo surgery — something that wasn’t an option 4½ years earlier with metastasized cancer.

Grand’s doctors, who have seen thousands of lung cancer patients are clear about this case: Grand is an anomaly among lung cancer patients. Few late-stage lung cancer patients have the same outcome — one of the reasons that lung cancer is considered the “invisible” cancer.

Grand plans to change that. These days, she has begun plans to revive her fund-raisers in 2015 and to continue her work with MD Anderson and Lungevity.

She knows the cancer may one day come back.

“I don’t fail if I die from this cancer. I don’t win if I survive. We all will die,” she said. “It’s what we do until then.”

Contact Robin Erb: rerb@freepress.com or at 313-222-2708. Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/FreepHealth.

http://www.freep.com/article/20140622/F ... al-section


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