Championing care over cancer


    LOUISVILLE, Ky. – She was a busy wife and mother of three who didn’t fit the usual profile. And he was preparing to retire from active military service, looking forward to going overseas to work.

    Until they each were sidelined by cancer in 2010.

    But their fight against the disease, and their experiences in living with cancer have made Teresa Secor of Sellersburg, Ind., and Anthony Combs of Elizabethtown, Ky., the 2014 James Graham Brown Cancer Center Champions.

    As representatives of the thousands of cancer patients who have received compassionate care and world-class treatment from the physicians and staff of the Brown Cancer Center, Teresa and Anthony will be featured guests at The Julep Ball, set for Friday, May 2, at the KFC Yum! Center.

    Making them feel like the belle and beau of the ball will be Boutique Serendipity, Dillards St. Matthews and Headz Salon, all of Louisville. The companies are donating wardrobe and hair and styling services to Teresa and Anthony.

    “At Boutique Serendipity, we pride ourselves as being a store that takes women as they are,” Elizabeth McConahy Jenkins, owner of Boutique Serendipity, said. “We have lots of women (as customers) who have had breast cancer and have had reconstructive surgery. We take you in whatever shape you’re in and help you. So being part of The Julep Ball is natural for us.”

    “Anything we can do to support the James Graham Brown Cancer Center is a must-do,” said Dillards St. Matthews Store Manager Robby David. “Specifically, The Julep Ball is an exciting event and one of the classiest events in Louisville. We are honored to be invited to participate.”

    “Everyone at Headz Salon wants to do anything possible to be part of killing cancer,” said Tony Williamson, owner of Headz Salon. “We know that is going to always take money, and we are glad to help raise funds to support the James Graham Brown Cancer Center.”

    For both Teresa and Anthony, the road to becoming a Champion has been a journey they’ve met with grace and courage. Here are their stories.

    Teresa Secor didn’t fit the profile of someone at risk for lung cancer

    Teresa Secor never smoked and never was exposed to second-hand smoke. She never worked in an industry that exposed her to carcinogens. She never lived in an area where the soil, water or air contained cancer-causing toxins. And the disease doesn’t run in her family.

    Yet, in 2010, the now 44-year-old mother of three heard the scary diagnosis: lung cancer. Her ensuing three-year odyssey as a patient with cancer symbolizes the strength and hope of every patient at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center at the University of Louisville, making Teresa a 2014 James Graham Brown Cancer Center Champion.

    It all started when she was hospitalized in Indiana for another procedure. Following that procedure, she experienced bouts of vomiting that led her medical team to wonder whether she had an ulcer. A CT scan was ordered.

    When she thought she was going to be discharged, one of her physicians delivered the news: The CT scan had revealed three spots on her lungs.

    She was shocked. “How did this happen? I never smoked, there was no second-hand smoke in my home. I had no warnings. I looked fine, and I felt fine.”

    She began calling people she knew, some of whom were nurses, to ask what to do. “They all said, ‘Dr. Bousamra is the one.’” Michael Bousamra, M.D., is head of thoracic surgery at the cancer center and professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at UofL.

    She came to the Brown Cancer Center where Bousamra performed more tests and ultimately surgery to remove the lower left lobe of her lung. The cancer was Stage 1B, and she didn’t require chemotherapy.

    Her checkups every six months since continue to show no signs of disease. And while she credits the treatment team’s expertise for her recovery, she also credits the emotional support they provided.

    “You’re not a number (at the cancer center). You’re a person,” she said, emphasizing the word. “They know you – they know everyone – by name.

    “A big part of what you go through is staying positive,” she said. “It is very normal and healthy to feel the emotions of a cancer diagnosis, but you need to stay positive. Early on, I was seeing Dr. Bousamra and I was crying. He said, ‘We are going to find out what this is.’ He was so positive. And then he said, ‘you have to stop crying because you’ll make me start crying.’

    “It’s like a family.”

    It is a family she has joined as a volunteer at the cancer center one day a week. She volunteers in the clinic of oncology Dr. Goetz Kloecker and other lung cancer patients like she once was. “I just visit with the patients,” she said. “They sometimes have that deer-in-the-headlights look. I know what this is like. I’ve been there, and I want to bring them hope.”

    Her own family walked the cancer journey with her, she said. Husband John Secor, a UPS pilot, and children Derek, 20, Shelby, 17 and Alex, 14, “were with me the whole way,” Teresa said.

    “We are a family of faith, and it helped get us through.”

    Anthony Combs went for a sleep study but found multiple myeloma

    Anthony Combs, 36, was a reasonably fit career military man at Fort Knox, making plans in 2010 to retire and start a new chapter in his life.

    But he had some trouble sleeping and went in for a sleep study. Blood work showed some problems, and after more tests, Anthony heard the diagnosis: multiple myeloma.

    Treatment provided in Elizabethtown began immediately, but the disease could not be controlled, so Anthony came to the James Graham Brown Cancer Center.

    A patient of blood and bone marrow transplantation specialist Cesar Rodriguez, M.D., Anthony has since had three transplants. The first, in February 2012, involved using his own cells, but ultimately failed to stop the progression of the disease.

    The decision was then made for Anthony to become the first cord blood transplant patient at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center. His second transplant was to prepare him for this procedure.In August 2013, he underwent the cord blood transplant, which involved completely replacing his bone marrow with cells taken from umbilical cord blood.

    “So, I’m somebody else now,” he said with a laugh.

    Now on maintenance therapy, he has ups and downs. There have been bouts of graft-versus-host disease where his body has tried to reject the transplant. But the now-retired military man says the experience “keeps things in perspective.

    “I thought about going overseas to work after my military career,” he said. “Multiple myeloma said no.

    “But the good thing is that I now have more time to spend with my kids and grandkids.” He and wife Shelly Combs, the manager of a Starbuck’s at Fort Knox, have three children, two grandchildren and another grandchild on the way. “I even wash clothes. I cook dinner!”

    Anthony echoes Teresa’s description of the atmosphere at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center: “They treat you like family. You can joke with them, you can express your concerns. The doctors are great. They are the reason I’ve been kept alive this long.”

    He said he also appreciates the full range of services available at the cancer center. &I#8220;I could have received some of my chemo or blood transfusions in E-town, but it would involve going to different facilities at different locations. It could take an entire day stretching into the evening to do it.

    “But at the Brown Cancer Center, everything is here. It’s a blessing to have everything so close, just a 45-minute drive from home.”

    Jill Scoggins is Director of Communications at UofL's Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. She has been at UofL since 2010.