Lung Cancer Survivor

Finding Love While Facing Cancer

A cancer diagnosis can lead to many things in an individual’s life: a new outlook, maybe a deeper apprecia-tion for life. For one single man, it meant falling in love with a woman who also had Stage IV lung cancer. The two lived across the country from one another and had rigorous treatment schedules, but they worked around everything to be together as much as possible to enjoy every minute they had.

 

In 2006, at age 54, Don Stranathan showed up for his volunteer work at California’s San Quentin State Prison. Twenty-seven years sober, he mentored inmates there about living drug- and alcohol-free lives. As part of a routine checkup for staff and volunteers, he underwent some medical testing, including a chest X-ray to check for exposure to tuberculosis. When doctors noticed a small spot on his lung, they performed a bronchoscopy and tested the fluid around his lungs for cancer cells. The tests came back negative; probably just scar tissue, they concluded.

A couple of years later, when his doctor left the facility, another physician reviewed his file and ordered additional testing. This time the tests showed Stage IV non-small cell adenocarcinoma of the lung, which had spread to both lungs and his lymph nodes.

Just a week before, Don, the outdoor enthusiast, had completed a 20-mile hike at 4,000 feet. Other than being a little winded, he didn’t notice any red flags. Never would he have imagined a cancer diagnosis was soon to follow.

Nevertheless, he was confident about his chances.

“I’d beaten significant health problems in the past, so I knew that I would beat this, too,” he said.

In the beginning, his oncologists wanted to give him 35 radiation treatments, but the plan changed to include chemotherapy and only 10 radiation treatments directed at the tumors in both lungs. Don had spoken with friends about getting a second opinion and determined that his oncologist was on par for the standard treatments for his type of cancer. Yet, he wanted more.

“I knew I was otherwise healthy and that my body could handle the treatment, so I asked for an extra five hits of radiation.”

Also, in addition to the combination chemotherapy, he asked his doctors to include a targeted therapy drug in his regimen. They obliged and Don started his anti-cancer therapies with six cycles of chemo, followed by another six for metastasis to his liver. After finishing radiation and chemo in 2010, Don started erlotinib (Tarceva) as maintenance therapy. He’s been on it for years and will continue to take it as long as it’s working.

“Treatment can be harder on you than the cancer itself,” he said. “A positive attitude was key for me, and I never gave up. Now I’m nearly six years a survivor and my condition is stable.”

When he was diagnosed, Don had been dating a woman for about a year, but she ended the relation-ship shortly after his diagnosis. He believes she wasn’t prepared to serve as a caregiver. He dated off and on, but he understood the apprehension that came with getting involved with a Stage IV cancer patient.

Throughout his journey, Don made it a point to connect with as many other survivors as possible. He became an active participant in support groups and on cancer boards through organizations such as LUNGevity and Inspire. It was through a post on Inspire that Don met Penny, a fellow patient who would change his life.

Penny Blume, 49, was also Stage IV. She’d posted a question about nutrition, and Don answered. After chatting and eventually exchanging phone numbers, they texted back and forth, talking about everything from their diagnoses and treatments to how both of their serious relationships crumbled shortly after they got the news. Neither went looking for love, but they couldn’t ignore the chemistry. They decided to meet in person only a few short months later. Penny, the New Yorker, booked a flight to sunny California to see Don.

“We both understood going into this relationship that neither of us knew how much time we had,” Don said. “When you think about it, though, does anyone?”

They worked around treatment schedules and the long distance by taking turns visiting one another and talking every day. Penny had never left the East Coast before, so they traveled every chance they had: Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Las Vegas, the California coastline. When they were together, they’d plan their next trip to always have something to look forward to, something to keep them going. The two were also regulars at lung cancer events, both passionately believing in spreading awareness and diminishing the stigma commonly associated with lung cancer.

Before they knew it, they were in love.

“Penny had a smile that could light up a room,” Don said. “And no matter how treatment made her feel, she never lost that smile.”

As Don’s disease stabilized, however, Penny’s progressed. She had extensive small cell lung cancer that had spread to her brain and adrenal gland. Her prognosis worsened. Don found a clinical trial near his home and invited Penny to move out to the warm weather and sunshine for the experimental treatment, even taking disability to care for her full-time.

“Being a Stage IV lung cancer patient and caring for a Stage IV lung cancer patient are two very different experiences,” he said. “Penny was my biggest supporter, but at times it was hard to celebrate my triumphs while her disease kept getting worse.”

Two and half years after they fell in love – and surrounded by Don and her family – Penny passed away.

“As a caretaker, you have to understand that it’s not always your job to stop death,” Don said. “Sometimes it’s to make the journey toward the end as pleasant as possible and to let her know she can leave without guilt. At the end it was no longer about fighting for her life, but about making her comfortable. I couldn’t stop death, but I could be with her and love her until the very end. I miss her terribly but I have no regrets.”

Don and Penny’s primary goal in life was to enjoy every minute of every day, not allowing cancer to define them or prevent them from doing the things they loved.

“She may have left this world, but she still beat cancer,” said Sherri Kavleski, Penny’s sister. “She sacrificed her body but didn’t let it take her spirit.”

More than a year after her death, Don still thinks of Penny every day. Staying active with his advocacy work, he carries on the ambition that he and Penny shared to raise awareness and funding for the disease. He exercises five days a week, attends regular spin classes and frequently travels for pleasure, mountain biking all over the country. He continues to be very open about his journey and his story, making regular posts on Facebook and Twitter (@don450sl).

He also continues to connect with other patients and emphasizes how critical it is they make sure they have all the facts before starting treatment, including any and all testing for their specific diagnosis. He makes it a point to stay up-to-date on the latest research and to share his knowledge with others whenever possible.

“There’s never a good time to be diagnosed with cancer, but great progress is being made in the field, and cancer is fast becoming a chronic illness we'll be able to live with in the coming years.”

It’s not about how much time you have, he said, but about making what time you do have count.

“I’ve learned how and what it means to be a survivor, and so can you. Stay strong, because there is hope.”

 

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