Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

More People Living Life despite Cancer; Once a Death Sentence, It Is Becoming More of a Chronic Illness Due to New Treatments

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

More People Living Life despite Cancer; Once a Death Sentence, It Is Becoming More of a Chronic Illness Due to New Treatments

Article excerpt

Byline: CHERIE BLACK, The Times-Union

For nearly a decade, Susan Mehrlust, 58, has continued to do what her physicians said she wouldn't -- live.

In December 1996, the former teacher and coach from Atlantic Beach was diagnosed with breast cancer after physicians discovered a large mass during a mammogram. Doctors gave her six months to a year to live. She had a mastectomy two months later and underwent a bone marrow transplant for treatment.

Since the initial diagnosis, Mehrlust's cancer has been in and out of remission for more than eight years. Each time it has returned, it has spread to a new part of her body, challenging her physicians to find new ways to keep her alive.

A decade ago, a cancer diagnosis often equaled a soon and certain death. Advanced research, however, has led to a better understanding of the different types of cancer and created more effective ways to battle them. Physicians have taken these discoveries and now say many cancers could be treated as chronic diseases, where patients live with their illness and control it with treatments, much like diabetes. Upon diagnosis, they believe patients like Mehrlust can ignore the odds and live longer, higher quality lives.

"We're playing a game of football and we're the defense and cancer is the offense," said Leann Fox an oncologist with St. Vincent's Medical Center and one of Mehrlust's physicians. She said each time Mehrlust's cancer returns, a new drug becomes available, which works to send the disease back into remission.

"We know from the biology of cancer it's just a matter of time before it catches on to how we're trying to fight it. As we get better and more chemotherapy drugs, the goal for treatment is to turn cancer into a chronic disease," she said.

Sipping coffee at Shelby's, one of her favorite coffee shops near her beach home, Mehrlust prides herself in overcoming the depression and self-pity many patients feel while going through multiple treatments. While physicians and patients are encouraged by new treatments prolonging life, there is still uncertainty about the extent of the added months and years, leaving patients with more time to cope emotionally, she said.

"When [my doctor] told me I had cancer, I took his clipboard and threw it at his feet," she said. "I started out looking over my shoulder wondering when the cancer was coming back. I wouldn't be here, though, if I had let it take control."

From her seat in the sun on an outdoor patio, Mehrlust greets friends and strangers alike with an infectious smile. She believes she is alive to help other people with cancer and is involved with local breast cancer charities. She talks to patients at St. Vincent's about her lengthy survival -- something some physicians say was unheard of until recent years. …

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