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Vol. 38, No. 18

By: Jeff McCallister

A survivor's fight

Six years ago at age 26, Jeanette Ferguson was in a fight for her life.

She had been diagnosed with stage 4 oral cancer, and even with aggressive treatment, doctors told her there was less than a 50-50 chance she’d survive the next five years.

Her treatment was aggressive and excruciating. Doctors unhinged her jaw to remove a significant part of her tongue, which they replaced with a graft of muscle they removed from her arm.

She had to have radiation treatment in the weeks before and after her surgery and even had a dose of radiation right in the middle of the operation.

“It was hell on earth,” said Ferguson, now a postdoctoral fellow doing oral cancer research here at Ohio State. “It was grueling and horrible, but here I am sitting here today, so you can’t argue with the results.”

As well as she’s doing today, with a 2-year-old son and no recurrence of her cancer, her story brings up an issue of increasing importance in the war on cancer: Survivorship itself.

“As a survivor, everything has a cancer twist to it,” Ferguson said. “It’s like coming back from war. You have to deal with post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, lots of things people probably don’t ever think about.

“It’s like you have to realize you’ll never be normal again — there’s the life you had before the cancer and the life you have now, and you’ll never have that other life again.”

As the Lance Armstrong Foundation prepares to hold its second LiveStrong Summit on campus July 24-27, one of the areas of focus will be survivorship issues.

The LAF awarded Ohio State a $1.25 million grant last year to fund survivorship research and education here. The James is one of eight centers nationwide to be recognized by the LAF as a Survivorship Center of Excellence.

“Survivorship is a whole new scientific field that has developed from some of the successes in cancer research, and I think having a Survivorship Center here speaks to the depth and breadth of our expertise,” said Michael Caligiuri, CEO of The James and director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Survivors are finding all the time that they have to relive the horrors of their diagnosis and treatment almost every day just as part of their normal everyday life, and we’re doing some excellent work to help them deal with those issues.”

Ferguson will be one of 20 Ohio delegates at the LiveStrong Summit.

“The scariest point for survivors is the day your treatment is over and you walk out that door for the last time,” she said.

“You go from being in there every single day with nurses and aides and social workers helping you take care of things to being completely on your own, and every little thing that comes up makes you think your cancer’s back,” she said. “So I’ve been going to as many survivorship meetings as I can and I’ve been volunteering for Joan’s Fund (raising funds for head and neck cancer research) at The James.

“But when I heard about this opportunity to come to the LiveStrong Summit, I was thrilled,” she said. “I have my personal experience, but I also come to work every day and see friends struggling with their research because there’s no funding. So I hope to learn about grassroots fundraising and get more insight about how I can get more involved in the fight.”

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