Beatrice Abercrumbie of Raleigh was first treated in January 2001 for a urinary tract infection. Over the next six months, further symptoms necessitated a CT that showed a shadow on her bladder. A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis of bladder cancer.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she remembers. “I was in denial and felt that I had been given a death sentence. I saw my own funeral.”
She came to UNC to see Dr. Raj Pruthi for a second opinion. “He explained everything to me. He even drew pictures so that I could understand the treatment he was proposing.” Abercrumbie underwent surgery, removing her bladder, and replacing it with a neobladder. She required no further treatment for her cancer.
She advises patients to be their own advocates and that they bring someone with them to appointments to take notes and ask questions. “It’s good to have someone else there. Patients can’t always take it all in, so having someone with you means that you can review what was said at a later time when you can better absorb the information.”
“I give all credit to the Lord Jesus,” she explains,“He used Dr. Pruthi to heal me.” Abercrumbie was especially appreciative that “Dr. Pruthi walked through it with me. My care at UNC was enveloping and supportive.”
Lanier Swann remembers what she did the day she learned that she had kidney cancer in March of 2011. “I did what any good Tar Heel would do. I got in my car and drove to the ACC Tournament.”
Lanier found out about her kidney cancer by accident when an unrelated problem took her to the ER and a doctor ordered an abdominal CT that revealed a mass on her kidney.
Lanier, a policy advisor for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, asked her sister to come up to DC for the follow-up tests. “My little sister, a student at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, came up to keep me company for the MRI. We got the results the next morning when I was told they believed it was kidney cancer. I met with a surgeon in the Washington, DC area, but explained that I wanted a second opinion. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go: Chapel Hill.”
Lanier was able to meet with Dr. Eric Wallen the morning after the tournament. “I was a candidate for a laparoscopic nephrectomy and was scheduled quickly for surgery with Dr. Matt Raynor. Dr. Wallen was respectful of my desire to move fast, even though the tumor posed no immediate danger. He took my feelings into consideration and for that I will always be grateful.”
Lanier says, “It’s challenging having what everyone calls ‘the cancer they don’t understand.’ I live with it, knowing it could come back. If it does return, it is a difficult cancer to treat. It does not respond to chemo or radiation.”
Following her recovery, she decided to start running. “I have several friends who took up running after beating cancer. When I first started, I couldn’t even run a mile. But, there was an item on my bucket list: do something you think you can’t. Running a race gave me a chance to check that item off.”
Lanier has run in several events now, and after taking part in a race at Disney World is planning to run in a half marathon there this fall. “I know when I run, I’m doing it for those who can’t. Every race I write the name of someone struggling with cancer so I can pray for them while I run. Taking part in these events is also a great way to open a discussion with someone about cancer as I always race in something orange [the color of kidney cancer awareness] and I am inevitably asked about it.” Lanier also races with something to represent UNC pinned to her clothing.
She says, “I am a different person than I was before March 21, 2011. The running and my strong faith pulled me back to life after the psychologically draining recovery. Most significantly, my faith has been transformed. I have a different perspective on life. Some things that were priorities are no longer. My top priorities now are my faith, family and friends.”
Lanier offers this advice to those who are newly diagnosed: “Lean into everyone who wants to help. It was hard to accept help, but I did. I have learned more about my friends in these last few months than at any time during my 33 years. I’m still insecure about some things, and getting used to my scars. My best friend told me recently ‘Scars don’t make you ugly. They’re the sign of a survivor.’”
She and a couple currently battling kidney cancer are starting a foundation. “We want to raise money for kidney cancer research. I’ve been told, “We don’t totally understand your cancer.’ With all the untold millions raised for other cancers, you wouldn’t think it was true, but it is. We want to change that. We need to save people’s lives.”
Allie Pazdan of Greenville, SC, thought she had a viral infection. Another chest x-ray ruled out lung cancer, but the next one revealed a mass in her right kidney. The diagnosis was confirmed by a CT and an ultrasound.
Her urologist recommended either surgery or cryoablation. Her daughter in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Donna Friedman, conferred with an oncologist friend who recommended that she go to a teaching hospital for a second opinion. He stated that Dr. Rich Goldberg, UNC Lineberger associate director, was highly regarded. Dr. Goldberg referred her to Dr. Raj Pruthi, whom she came to see.
“Dr. Pruthi was excellent at explaining my kidney situation, " Mrs. Pazdan said. “He took a lot of time with me and my husband, Joe, and helped us make the decision to remove the kidney.”
The mass was inside the kidney so it could not be biopsied. Mrs. Pazdan had her tumor removed surgically and is doing fine. “We felt so good about my care team at UNC Lineberger.”
“If you’re diagnosed with cancer, get a second opinion from someone who fully understands what your medical situation is. Then become familiar with what your problem is, educate yourself, and have confidence in your therapy. After treatment, get on with your life.”
Michael Taylor thought he had a kidney stone, but it turned out to be kidney cancer. “I had been to see a urologist in Roanoke Rapids. The day he told me I had cancer, he scheduled my appointment for late in the day. When I came out from our meeting, I noticed no one was there. He had very politely waited until everyone was out of his office so that I could leave without encountering anyone else.”
When Mr. Taylor shared the news with his wife, Susan, even though they were devastated by the news, they were determined to find the best treatment for him.
Mr. Taylor came to Chapel Hill to see Dr. Raj Pruthi and decided to have surgery at UNC. Dr. Pruthi performed a laparoscopic surgery to remove the kidney, so Michael was able to leave the hospital sooner. Once home, as advised by his surgery team, he took it easy. “I knew what I couldn’t do, and I cooked some and stayed around the house.” A farmer, Michael found it hard to remain inactive.
Four weeks after his surgery, the family took a vacation at the beach. Michael climbed Jockey’s Ridge. “I paced myself, and took a picture of me with some of my family when I got to the top.”
Several weeks after his procedure, he returned to UNC and underwent a spiral CT scan. The scan indicated tumors on his lungs. “You think things can’t get worse, but they can. Then I was offered a clinical trial with Dr. Kim Rathmell for Stage 4 kidney cancer. The trial drug, tivozanib, has worked for me for over 18 months. It has shrunk the tumors and since then the tumors have stayed steady. I don’t have any new tumors, but I still have kidney cancer.”
Michael experienced side effects from the trial drug. “I was spending time with my grandson, when he asked, ‘What’s wrong with you PeePaw?’ I told him my medicine made me sick. He was only three years old, but he said, ‘Medicine’s supposed to make you feel good.’ He couldn’t understand that my medicine made me feel bad.”
Despite his symptoms, he continued to farm. “I’d have a good day, and I’d have a bad day. I could often work half a day. I farm, but I don’t farm stupid. There are ways to work around your physical problems.” And that’s just what he did. His determination shows in how he has managed symptoms from his therapy. “I was having problems with my foot, and when people asked me how I handled it, I told them I just walked on the other side of my foot. Susan doesn’t understand how I do it, but I tell her, if I don’t keep going what do I do?”
Michael has suffered with symptoms for months, but recently, some of them have subsided or improved. “All of a sudden I had part of my life come back. I’ve been able to get out and do things I wasn’t normally able to do. It’s wonderful.”
He says, “I see things differently now. It’s like you have been close to death, but got over it. There’s nothing wrong with keeping on.”
Of his cancer experience he states, “You’re not there by yourself. It’s a world of people who have cancer.” He recommends that newly diagnosed patients “look for an experienced doctor. I’ve had a good experience with UNC.”
Michael and Susan Taylor live in Jackson, NC. They have four sons and five grandchildren and a strong religious belief.
Kenneth Harris is a salesman. “When I believe in something, I have to spread the word. I tell everyone I meet: if you’ve got prostate cancer, go see Dr. Wallen at UNC. But don’t take my word for it. Go and talk to him and the staff and see for yourself.”
Ken is from the small town of Hertford, NC, and so when he found out that he had prostate cancer, he knew he’d have to travel for an operation. But he didn’t want just any operation. While researching online, he found a new robotic procedure for prostate removal that limited recovery time and made blood transfusion unnecessary, factors important to Ken. But the first surgeon he approached said the new technique was too expensive. The next doctor said he couldn’t do prostate surgery without a blood transfusion, and Ken would likely be laid up in bed for weeks after traditional surgery. But then Ken found out that Dr. Eric Wallen was using the robotic procedure at UNC. And UNC Hospitals could work with Ken so he could afford it.
The day after the operation, Ken was sitting in his hospital bed waiting to be released. “They brought me lunch the same time as my wheel chair arrived for discharge,” Ken says. “So I took my lunch to go.”
Robert Johnson always has an annual physical exam and attends the prostate cancer screening offered at his local hospital. “African-American men are more susceptible to prostate cancer, so if I have a problem, I want to catch it early.”
His screening results showed an elevated PSA, so Johnson visited a local urologist in New Bern. After several biopsies, Johnson learned that he had a slow growing tumor. His urologist suggested he see UNC’s Dr. Eric Wallen to determine possible treatment options. “When I visited with Dr. Wallen, he educated me about prostate cancer and gave me hope. He told me about a clinical trial for which I might qualify. I prayed about it and asked for God’s guidance.”
Johnson enrolled in the trial of a new way to treat prostate cancer called High Frequency Ultrasound (HIFU). “The procedure lasted two hours, and I went home the same day.” He sees his participation as “a way to help and encourage others. I hope the treatment works for me, but I also want it to pave the way for a new option for men diagnosed with this disease.”
Johnson says that when growing up, his attitude was “whatever my lot is, I’m willing to accept it. When I learned I had prostate cancer, I said to myself, ‘Why not me?’ I’m glad it happened when it did so I could move quickly to seek help. With God’s help, I can face this disease and help others too.”
Due to his diagnosis, he has taken time away from his work as pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in New Bern, a job he has held for 29 years. He lives in New Bern with his wife, Martha, and their sons, Robert Emmanuel and Jordan Isaiah.
“I have strong family support,” Johnson says. “When I told my children that I had cancer, they said, “Daddy, we stand with you.’ My church family has lifted me up. Through God’s grace, I will be healed.”
Johnson describes his UNC care team as “awesome. They’re very caring and respectful. When I visit everyone embraces me with love, concern and support. That’s unique.”
James Hardin, a 58-year-old enrolled member of the Lumbee Indian tribe, began working with the Lumbee Regional Development Association in 1986 as executive director. He left the agency in 2003 and returned again in August 2007 as executive director.
The non-profit, based in Pembroke NC, provides various services, such as Head Start, employment and training, housing, daycare and cultural programs to Lumbee Indians in Robeson, Hoke and Scotland counties. The Lumbee is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi river.
In 2008, he had to take a break and let others help him when doctors diagnosed him with prostate cancer. While in college at then Pembroke State University in 1973, James had a bout of prostatitis, an inflammation of the prostate gland. His doctor prescribed a 90-day course of antibiotics. But before the 90 days were up, James felt better and stopped the treatment.
Then, every ten years or so, he’d get a flare up. During last year’s flare-up, doctors found cancer. His surgery was successful, and while in post-op care, James noticed the thoughtfulness of one of the nursing students. “Before I could think of what I needed, there she was bringing me what I needed—a cup of ice, whatever it was,” James says.
“My memory wasn’t too good after surgery. I only remember her name was Ashley. I’d tell my wife, ‘I’m fine; Ashley the angel is taking care of me.’”
Mike Creed loves learning new things. He has two engineering degrees from NC State, a business certificate from UNC, and has been working toward a PhD in city and regional planning at UNC for several years. He also plays several instruments and, although he says he’s lousy at golf, really enjoys playing.
“I’m just an inquisitive guy,” he says. “Every five or six years, I have to go back to school.”
But in 2006, Mike had to slow down a bit when doctors told him he had prostate cancer. At first, he was stunned. “I sulked for a while, but then I realized I had to get back to living again. And Dr. Pruthi helped me get through this. He put a face on this disease.”
Dr. Raj Pruthi performed Mike’s surgery with a cutting-edge robotic technique.
“I was up and walking that first day,” Mike says. “And I had a great experience with the hospital staff. I was impressed with the humanity and care they showed me.”
Mike, who runs his own engineering firm, is writing his dissertation and should earn that PhD soon enough. And he’s certainly free to go earn a second one.
Lewis Roland is an advocate. The retired assistant chair of maternal and child health in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 following a screening, and saw his physician, Dr. Elaine Hart-Brothers. He then sought out other men who had had prostate cancer and discovered “guys I had known for years, but they didn’t talk about it. I’m working to change that silence.”
Dr. Roland’s first thoughts when he learned he had cancer were “devastation, fear, and death. I grew up in Kinston, NC. When someone had cancer, nobody talked to that person. You’d go to the next room. The patient felt very isolated.
“My wife, Dr. Joyce Roland, a former nurse anesthetist and Interim Chair of the Department of Nursing at North Carolina Central University, told me, ‘ So much has changed. Technology has improved. You shouldn’t worry.’
“I also talked with Dean Bill Small, now retired associate dean of the UNC School of Public Health. He became my confidante.”
Dr. Roland was referred to UNC and Dr. Raj Pruthi who told him that the cancer was contained and not aggressive at that time. For almost three years they used “watchful waiting” and Roland was checked every three months. “I asked Dr. Pruthi, ‘If I were your daddy, what would you tell your daddy to do?’ He told me he would still recommend watchful waiting.”
Roland did much reading, trying to learn as much as possible about prostate cancer treatment alternatives. “When Dr. Pruthi told me that there was some movement in my PSA numbers and that we needed to do something to get it at an early stage, I spoke with my UNC medical oncologist, Dr. Paul Godley. Next I did more research on the different treatment options and asked some of the guys I play golf with who were doctors. I decided on the da Vinci surgery.” Roland had his surgery in February 2011.
Having officiated at the funeral of a friend who had been diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer, he now works to increase awareness among African-American men about the need to get screened and the urgency of an early diagnosis. “I saw the suffering he and his family endured. It made an impact on me and the need to make others aware of early detection.”
Early on, Dr. Bill Small recommended a book by North Carolina native Tom Farrington, founder of the Prostate Health Education Network in Massachusetts. Roland says, “I was able to have dinner with him and was most inspired by his commitment and passion for his advocacy.”
Roland also admires the work of Bill Robinson, leader of the NC Black Men’s Health Initiative. “The work Bill and his group are doing is critical. African-American men fear going to the doctor, in part, because of what happened at Tuskegee. We’re pushing men to get screened and to be aware of their health.
“Having cancer has changed me,” Roland explains. “It has made me a lot more positive, more benevolent towards others.” He credits his longtime meditation practice as a tremendous benefit and help. “It helps the body and brain to be in tune with each other.”
Roland advises newly diagnosed patients “to talk with as many people as you possibly can to learn as much as you can about your disease. Share your story and above all, have a positive attitude.
Kelvin Whitfield remembers being told he had an elevated level of prostate specific antigen, but not much else after that. Whitfield, of Durham, experienced tremendous pain in his side and had passed out in the fall of 2006. His physician ordered blood work and found an elevated level of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Whitfield then underwent a biopsy and learned he had prostate cancer. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I was thinking one word: ‘death.’”
LuAnn Smith, the nurse navigator with the UNC Lineberger Urologic Oncology Program, assured him that his cancer was detected early. She also explained that the hospital had a new way of performing surgery that would remove the cancerous prostate.
Dr. Raj Pruthi, program co-director, discussed treatment options, and they decided to use the da Vinci technology for his surgery. Kelvin Whitfield said, “Dr. Pruthi explained that with this robotic-assisted surgery, my recovery time would be six weeks instead of a year. The robotic arm of the da Vinci would make tiny holes that allowed cameras to go inside and remove the prostate. The cameras would provide pictures of where to cut to remove the prostate. The older method forced surgeons to make a large incision which necessitated to a one-year recovery period, but by using the da Vinci technology, my recovery would be within six weeks, a much shorter time.”
Whitfield remains grateful for the fact that “everyone stepped up and helped: my wife Vicky, daughter, Shante, my sons, Eric and James, deal with my health issues.” Whifield is especially grateful for nurse LuAnn, Dr. Shultz, Dr. Pruthi, his team of doctors and nurses. “Their support and care made an enormous positive difference.” Whitfield underwent the surgery and did not need either radiation or chemotherapy.
Since his surgery, Whitfield has made lifestyle changes to stay healthy: “I’ve cut out burgers, try to eat more healthy foods, exercise more, and also cut out stress from my job and life.”
Whitfield sums up his UNC experience by saying, “I put my life in their hands to cut me open and perform the surgery. I was always confident and feel blessed to have had the care and treatment I received. God has truly blessed the folks at UNC Hospital by giving them the skills to help save the world.”