Twelve Years After Breast Cancer, Life Is Good For Bone Marrow Transplant Patient

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Jeremy McCormick was just 12 years old when his mother's breast cancer struck: a tender age for the stark reality of life to hit.

"Jeremy was in seventh grade and he had a hard time dealing with it, especially when I lost my hair," said 50-year-old Phyllis McCormick, who came to Duke for a bone marrow transplant in 1992. "He didn't want his friends to see me without hair and he hated my first wig. He said it didn't look like me."

McCormick made a trip to Dianne's Selections in Raleigh, taking them a pre-chemotherapy picture of herself. "They had a wig that matched perfectly. I wore it home and my son said, 'That's it!'"

It is one reminiscence in a bank full of dark memories, but each memory serves to illuminate the struggles a family faces when one member has a devastating illness. A dozen, cancer free years have passed since then, and every year McCormick returns to Duke to spread the message that there is life after cancer. She is one of about 80 former patients expected to attend the annual Adult Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Reunion at Duke on Saturday.

"People who are one or two years out are so happy to see us and know it's possible to be 12 years out," said McCormick. "You can share things. If someone is having a problem and you've had that problem, you can share your experience."

McCormick vividly remembers her treatment and recovery process. The Ringgold, Va., native began her cancer journey in 1991 with chemotherapy treatments in Danville, Va., as a joint effort between local oncologists and doctors at the Duke Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Program. McCormick qualified for the transplant program at Duke, and proceeded with the bone marrow procedure. Afterward, her recovery was slow and tedious.

"I was in isolation for 21 days after the transplant," she said. "If our blood counts were good enough, we could leave the hospital in the evenings and go to the Washington Duke Inn, but we had to have a caretaker with us. In the mornings, we would come back to Duke. That was the beginning of testing if we could be outside the hospital without getting an infection."

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Six weeks after her transplant, McCormick started radiation treatments. She drove more than an hour from her home every day for 33 treatments. "People in my community and my church would sign up to drive me down so that my husband didn't have to miss work. It was wonderful."

McCormick finished her treatments in 1992 and has been in good health since then. Her children are thriving, and she is thrilled to have helped them grow.

"I've been able to watch them both graduate from high school," said McCormick. "And now we're planning a wedding" for her 21-year-old daughter Reagan, a senior in the School of Nursing at East Carolina University. Her son Jeremy is now 23 and in graduate school at Elon University to become a physical therapist.

Her children take turns accompanying McCormick and her husband to the reunion each year, where they share their stories with patients who are in the throes of cancer treatment and recovery.

"There is a program at the reunions for caregivers and family, and my husband has really enjoyed the groups he has participated in. My son has gone with me to a reunion in the past and my daughter is going Saturday," said McCormick. "For those of us who are able to attend, it brings us back together."

This year's reunion will be held Aug. 2 beginning at 10:30 a.m. Patients and their families will be given a continental breakfast to start their day, followed by patient discussions, updates on new treatments for cancer and a talk by Kevin Sowers, interim CEO for Durham Regional Hospital and a former oncology nurse at Duke. The day's events will take place in the Duke North Pavilion.

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For more information about the reunion or the Bone Marrow Transplant Program, visit http://bmt.mc.duke.edu or call (919) 668-1027. - DURHAM, N.C.

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