A housewife, an engineer, a coal miner, a retired hospital employee and a television anchorman were among the dozens of Utahns who gathered Friday at the Governor's Mansion.
Though their lifestyles are distinctly different, all had one thing in common. They beat cancer - the disease that doesn't discriminate.These "survivors," who you'd see in offices and in factories, on bicycles and cruise ships, on tennis courts, beaches and in bowling alleys, were honored at a "Celebration of Life" program, sponsored by the American Cancer Society in commemoration of the society's 75th anniversary.
Utah's first lady, Colleen Bangerter, hosted the reception and presented an award to the survivors, who symbolize the most visible evidence of the progress that has been made in fighting cancer.
Among the recipients, selected from every part of the state, was Rebecca Lea Christensen, whose cancer was diagnosed after surgery three years ago. Becky was five months pregnant. Because chondrosarcoma is such a rare form of cancer, treated only by amputation, she was told she had less than two months to live.
Becky's tumor was in her lower back. To amputate, doctors explained, would mean removing half of the lower part of her body from her waist down and to her spine. Determined that two lives would not be sacrificed, she refused the abortion physicians recommended.
Her son, Ryan, weighed 3 pounds 9 ounces at birth. Despite an initial addiction to medication, he's now a healthy 31/2-year-old child. But everything that could go wrong with Becky did.
The cancer, trying to take over her body cavity, grew to the size of a huge watermelon and burst through the incision on her back. Physicians severed her spinal cord to control the pain, but left her a paraplegic. Fourteen surgeries followed.
Today there is no sign of the cancer. The incision was packed and allowed to heal from the inside and is now just a crevasse. Becky, cared for by a nurse, lives at home with her family. Moving about in her electric wheelchair, she performs such regular motherly activities as folding sheets, peeling potatoes and providing lots of love and encouragement for her three toddlers.
Like other award recipients heralded Friday, Becky was selected for her unusual courage in her struggle against the disease. She is representative of the more than 5 million Americans with a history of cancer.
A highlight of the ceremony Friday was the reading of the "Cancer Survivors' Bill of Rights."
The document covers four major areas: the right to lifelong medical care, the right to the pursuit of happiness, the right to equal job opportunities, and the right to adequate health insurance.
"Modern medical advances have returned about half of the nation's cancer patients of all ages (and 59 percent for those under the age of 55) to a normal lifespan," the bill reads. "But the larger society has not always kept pace in helping make this lifespan truly normal'; at least, it has felt awkward in dealing with this fledgling group; at most, it has failed fully to accept survivors as functioning members."
The Bill of Rights was written to call public attention to the survivors' needs, as well as to those of their physicians, employers, families and friends.