The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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June 3, 2012

Cancer survivors share common bond at annual celebration in Pittsburg

PITTSBURG, Kan. — It’s hard to miss Chet Sweet in a crowd. He stands out with his bright pink hair. He’s one of the few men to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

But sitting among 300 people enjoying plates of fried chicken and all the fixings Sunday afternoon in Lincoln Park, he didn’t feel like the odd man out.

“We’re survivors,” he said. “That’s what we all have in common.”

Those survivors, their friends and families gathered for a celebration known as National Cancer Survivors Day. It has been held nationally for 25 years and has been put on locally by Via Christi Hospital for 15 years.

Some who attended are recent survivors. Pittsburg resident John Hartman was diagnosed with throat cancer seven months ago.

Outfitted with a tracheal tube, he said chemotherapy and radiation have “taken a lot out of me. I’m fighting depression. But a day like this helps.”

Sweet, 59, of Girard, first felt a lump in 2009.

“I asked Susan (his wife) to feel it and confirm, and when her jaw dropped, I knew it was cancerous,” he said.

Tests at Via Christi Cancer Center verified his suspicion.

“Dr. (Dwane) Beckenhauer had plans the next day, but he canceled. He said he wanted to get a biopsy and didn’t want to wait,” said Sweet, who then had a mastectomy followed by rounds of chemotherapy. He suffered a blood infection and other related issues, and had a long road to recovery, his wife said.

The treatments also left his normally thick, white hair and beard — think Santa Claus — too thin for him to wear the pink extensions that are popular in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. So, Lisa Lovell, program coordinator at Via Christi Cancer Center, took Sweet to the Pittsburg School of Beauty for a pink dye job.

“I had it redone for this (Sunday’s celebration) a few days ago,” he said.

Lovell’s sister, Rita Leibbrand, 54, of Mindenmines, Mo., has been battling breast cancer since last June. Her husband, Jim, died of colon cancer 5 1/2 years ago.

She elected to have a double mastectomy and thought she was “home free.”

“Three more months of chemotherapy, and I waited, had radiation, then began having pain in my left arm,” Leibbrand said, surrounded at a picnic table by friends and family. A body scan revealed that three new tumors had formed near her collarbone.

After treatment at University of Kansas Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic, she was sent home to undergo more rounds of radiation. Subsequent testing after she suffered pain in her hip revealed that the cancer had spread to her bones.

Although her prognosis does not look good, Leibbrand chose to attend the picnic to celebrate anyway.

“It’s a day at a time for all of us,” she said as she enjoyed the food and atmosphere with her daughter and granddaughter. “None of us has a guarantee. I try to keep it in perspective. My priority is my family. We’re doing the best we can to enjoy life every moment. It’s not the length of time you have, it’s what you do with your time.”

This year’s celebration marked a first for Pittsburg resident Paula Atkinson, 54, a medical secretary at Via Christi Cancer Center.

“This is the first year I’m attending this as a survivor instead of just an employee,” Atkinson said.

Diagnosed in January 2010 with a rare form of liver cancer, she had 65 percent of her liver removed a month later. She later learned that the cancer had returned and invaded her blood vessels.

Rounds of chemotherapy and treatments known as TheraSphere took their toll. Atkinson is now working 24 hours a week.

“But I’m still here,” she said. “You don’t give up hope, don’t give up faith. You keep going. You look at the bright side. I see a lot of people here that have beat the odds.”

Her first year as a survivor at the picnic gave her a new perspective, she said.

“But I’m still going to help do cleanup,” she said with a smile. “I would feel guilty if I didn’t.”

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