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CANCER SURVIVORS

Believing that she can

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Deb Whitsett knew something was wrong when she gave herself a breast exam in December 2010.

“I felt something hard, a lump that felt like a rock,” she says. “I was amazed when I found it. I knew then what it was and thought ‘I don’t have time for this’.”

Even though she had gone for yearly mammograms, the scan had not picked up anything that year. Three months later she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ms. Whitsett is now one year cancer free, and is the co-chair for this weekend’s Relay for Life that begins at 6 p.m. Friday at the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center.

Ms. Whitsett underwent two lumpectomies with radiation and drug therapy. She also moved in with her daughter and son-in-law during the procedures. She had an overwhelming amount of love and support from her family during this time. They sponsored bake sales and fundraisers for her and just spent time with her as she went through her process.

“It was hard for me, to learn how to allow other people to help me after having been strong as a wife, mother, grandmother, and so on. It was a humbling experience to let them take care of me,” Ms. Whitsett says.

She credits being on top of her health to her recovery, saying that knowledge is the best thing to be armed with during a situation like this.

“You have to both listen to the doctor and then decide for yourself what’s best.”

She said one key to her process was to not let any negativity near her during her treatment, in addition to quiet time to herself.

“It’s all about perspective. Once you have cancer, nothing’s really a big deal,” she says.

Having cancer helps you live more in the moment and stop dwelling in the past or looking to the future, she said. She also says that she has gotten more from cancer than it took away from her, helping her to feel more empathy and sympathy, and changing her still today.

After her experience, she decided to get a “believe” tattoo, to remind herself everyday to believe she can.

“I got to see what it would be like if I died, before I died,” she says. “It’s all about attitude and perception. If you think it will overcome you, it will.”

Mrs. Whitsett, who lives in Bellefontaine and works in associate relations at NEX Transport in East Liberty, says she is looking forward to this year’s Relay For Life after last year’s experience. Then, her family raised money for luminaries for her, all with a picture of a family member or loved one on it to show their love and support.  

“The whole time I just thought that I wasn’t going to be another victim,” she says. “I knew I was going to be OK.”

Rising like a phoenix

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Denver Dixon knew during his junior year of high school there was something wrong with his body, but he couldn’t figure out what.

“I knew I was sick, and I kept stressing myself out over it,” he says.

In August 1998, at age 19, he found out why: He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He then underwent chemotherapy once every six weeks for six months to try and cure the disease that has an 85 percent survival rate for the first diagnosis.

He was then proclaimed cancer free, but two months later he discovered another lump in his neck. His cancer was back again, leading to five more months of cancer treatments. After that he spent three years cancer free before discovering yet another lump, smaller this time, in his neck.

This time he underwent 54 treatments of radiation, five times a week. Eventually, Mr. Dixon was declared cancer free again.

A veteran survivor, Mr. Dixon, of Rushsylvania, is a Relay for Life co-chair for this weekend’s event.

During a yearly routine scan, it was found that he had spots on his spleen, leading to its removal. He was cancer free again for three years, until it was found he needed more treatment. He traveled to Columbus then for treatment at Doctors West and for chemo treatments one week a month for three months. In 2005 he went to the Cleveland Clinic for a bone marrow transplant, leading to another three years cancer free.

He was diagnosed again on Christmas Eve 2009. Mr. Dixon then traveled to Cleveland Clinic to look into stem cell transplant, but they did not want to risk the procedure because of his history.

This led him to Cancer Treatment Centers of America to ask for help. They sent him to a specialized doctor in Illinois in April 2010 to prepare for a stem cell transplant, with cells donated by one of his sisters. The transplant was to help give him a better immune system, one that could fight the cancer since his could not.

The transplant took place July 28, 2010. He was hospitalized for one month, and then had to stay within 10 minutes of the hospital for the two months following. The cells eventually killed the cancer in 2011, and he has been cancer free for two years.

But the stem cell transplant had led to graft versus host disease. GVHD occurred because the cells transplanted from his sister began to fight with his other cells. It can attack any part of your body at any time, and has attacked Mr. Dixon’s lungs on occasion, and has been for the past few years.     

Throughout his entire experience though, he has kept a positive outlook.

“When I first was diagnosed, my heart dropped. Then I decided I’d do whatever it takes, to get it done and over with,” he says. “If you tell me I can’t do something, you are gonna have to prove to me that I can’t.”

He says he just went in and did it, and that was that. He said he never dwelled on it or let it consume him. Mr. Dixon has three tattoos from his journey with cancer: a biohazard symbol, eyes on the back of his neck, and a rising phoenix. Each has its own symbol to him from strength to always watching his back.  

He looks forward to his relay co-chair duties.

“I think it was neat I was asked. I spoke at Benjamin Logan for their Relay for Life and I think it’s really neat to get to do it again this year at this one.”

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