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Cancer Survivors Join Together to Celebrate Gift of Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s been almost a year since Kim Sheldon, a Newbury Park mother of two, found out she had cancer. For the nonsmoking, teetotaling 33-year-old, with no family history of the dreaded disease, the diagnosis came completely out of left field.

She had never experienced any pain or discomfort. The only sign of trouble was a single day when she found blood in her urine, a symptom she could have all too easily ignored.

But then surgeons pulled a tumor the size of two golf balls off her bladder, and suddenly she faced a terrifying future.

“Initially when they told me it was cancer, it was such a horrible thing to hear,” Sheldon said. “Immediately you think, ‘Oh my gosh, what is going to happen to my kids?’ ”

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Sheldon was one of 3,005 Ventura County residents who learned that they had cancer in 1995. During the year, 1,180 residents died of cancer-related causes. Sheldon was one of the lucky ones who survived.

Sunday is National Cancer Survivor Day, and along with about 100 other people who have fought the illness, Sheldon will be at Oxnard State Beach for a picnic and celebration of life, a life she says is much sweeter for what she has been through.

“I had a whole new chance to start over,” Sheldon said. “In a way it was a very positive thing. I almost wish I could have felt this way before I had cancer, so I could appreciate everything this way.”

The picnic, which was organized by the Ventura County Medical Center for its patients, kicks off a week of events at the Wellness Community in Thousand Oaks and the Westlake Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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The goal, said Cathy Deen, head oncology nurse at VCMC, is to promote a positive perspective among cancer patients.

“Until recently, I think people looked at cancer as a death sentence,” Deen said. “It was synonymous with dying. We want to change that.”

Oxnard resident Myrtle McGrath, 61, knows just what Deen means. She learned she had breast cancer in 1984.

“When you hear the word cancer, you immediately just think of death, you know?” McGrath said.

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She beat that cancer, but by 1990 it was back, this time in her ovaries. The second bout wasn’t so scary, she said, because she knew what to expect and that she could make it through.

“There are two ways to look at cancer,” she said. “You can either say, OK, take me, or you can fight every single day of your life. That is what I did.”

Two years ago, the cancer returned for a third time, attacking her intestines. McGrath took it in stride, even though she was without insurance. Her husband had retired and her own part-time work as a product demonstrator at the Price Club did not provide coverage. But she has remained upbeat, despite five-hour chemotherapy treatments at the county hospital.

“The nurses make it almost like a day of pleasure,” she said.

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In 1993, Frank Henigman complained to his doctor that he was experiencing minor double vision. A day later he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and headed into surgery.

“I was blown away,” said Henigman, 61. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

He survived the surgery and the three months of radiation, making such a remarkable recovery that his radiologist christened him a “walking miracle.”

Now Henigman works out, takes herbs, eats carefully and guards his renewed good health carefully. He is a regular participant at the Wellness Community in Thousand Oaks, where he helps others brave the terror of facing cancer.

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“I try to help people,” Henigman said. “I try to be real positive, to tell them they have got to fight it. You can’t just give up on cancer or you will be gone.”

FYI

The picnic is from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Oxnard State Beach and will feature a salsa band, hamburgers and hot dogs. A Survivor’s Wall will be up throughout the week at the Wellness Community, 530 Hampshire Road, Thousand Oaks. Call (818) 865-4000 or (805) 531-0003 for details about the celebration at the Westlake Comprehensive Cancer Center.


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