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Sunday, July 15, 2007

She can read her own MRI: Six-time cancer survivor

Lois Ferrarra beat cancer. Six times. In a span of two decades, doctors diagnosed Hodgkin's disease, then lung, thyroid, vulvar, breast and skin cancers.

Mrs. Ferrara has endured more than a dozen surgeries and countless medical treatments. And though none of the cancers stemmed from another, she has emerged each time cancer-free.

"Hello, I'm still here," she said at a recent gathering to celebrate her 20th year of survival. "It's great to be here. Heck, it's great to be anywhere."

Mrs. Ferrara's doctors have marveled at her uncanny ability to repeatedly fight off – and laugh off – the diseases.

Mrs. Ferrara, 49, is training for the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk this fall. She's also using her experiences to counsel those who have been diagnosed with cancer or are recovering, walking them through the process of choosing doctors and procedures.

Friends and doctors say it's her fierce determination that attracts fellow survivors to Mrs. Ferrara. That, and her way with encouraging words.

"No one is going to fight your cancer like you will," she said. "I often wonder if that is why I am still here, to equip others for the battle."

At 29, Mrs. Ferrara learned she had Hodgkin's disease, a lymphatic cancer. She remained cancer-free for 11 years, but then developed the other cancers.

All of the cancers were caught in the early stages, but three almost went undiagnosed. During a routine gynecological exam her physician felt a lump on her throat. On a hunch, she went for further testing.

"My inner voice is routine," said Mrs. Ferrara, a Richardson, Texas resident. "I'm not sure you can teach someone to hear it, so you have to be thorough."

Mrs. Ferrara's initial biopsy was not diagnosable. She opted for surgery to remove it, losing part of her thyroid. While on the operating table, her surgeon found a baseball-size tumor on her esophagus.

Dr. Dan Meyer, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UT Southwestern Medical Center, believes there is something in Mrs. Ferrara's genetic makeup that makes her susceptible to tumors. But he also believes her attitude is a major factor in her ability to survive. Dr. Meyer remembered a time when Mrs. Ferrara came in for an office visit. She commented on how another patient was having a bad day and how she felt for that person.

"This is Lois, a young woman a day away from a mastectomy, never spending time reflecting negatively on her own existence but just focusing on the positives in life and trying to help others choose this vision," he said.

"She is unique in this way, and it must have an impact on her ability to fight against these multiple different cancers."

Mrs. Ferrara jokes that she's become a "professional patient" who carries a document explaining all of her procedures to attach to patient forms.

She said, "I write on the form, 'You don't have enough room. See attached.'"

Mrs. Ferrara's personality is reflected in everything from her crystal blue eyes and brightly-colored shirts to her tiny, vintage, one-door BMW.

She credits another component to her survival to her charismatic, fun-loving husband, Richard. Before her recent surgeries, he wrote messages on the bottom of her feet.
For her celebration, he wrote, "Life. I love you." The process never ceases to make them laugh out loud. During her last surgery in January, a hysterectomy, the message read, "Git'r Done!"

Dr. Elizabeth Jekot has been the recipient of one of these messages. Before becoming her doctor, Ms. Jekot was a friend of Mrs. Ferrara's. The two met through a literacy board.
She started seeing Dr. Jekot, who founded a breast imaging center in Richardson, in September after her second breast cancer diagnosis. She too is a breast cancer survivor. And she too is inspired by Mrs. Ferrara.

"Talk about talking to the most educated patient," Dr. Jekot said. "She could read her own MRI."

Mrs. Ferrara had never even had a stitch until her first surgery. She never suffered a broken bone chasing her older brothers and jumping off roofs as a child.

"Don't tell me I can't" is something she has been saying her entire life, she said.

She said there were times she almost let mortality sink in, but she didn't give it much thought. Instead, she got busy.

Today, Mrs. Ferrara is disease-free. She says she believes that cancer is her nemesis and that it could eventually take her life. Until then, she will keep fighting the fight for herself and others.

She sums her life up in singer Paul Anka's big band version of It's My Life. "I have cancer, but it's not my life," she said.

The four months of daily radiation treatments that cured her first cancer could be what has caused her other malignancies. Her immune system has been weakened by the treatments.
"The cure is killing me," she said. "But if I had not had ... [radiation], I wouldn't be here."
If not for her humor she might have given up, she said. A positive attitude is one key to survival, and sharing it gives her reason to live.

Friends and family diligently follow her daily blog on training for the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk this fall. Most of the money raised will go to Susan B. Komen for the Cure.

Read another of our cancer survivor stories, or read Mikki Kirby’s source story.