Stories of Hope

+ -Text Size

Mr. and Mrs. Graves Go to Washington

Article date: September 16, 2006

Joyce and Paul Graves

What we can do is raise money for those who are researchers and for broader education. That makes you feel that you're part of something that can make a difference for other people, too.

 

Couple Lobby for Research Funding as Celebration on the Hill Ambassadors

 

Each year when Relay For Life comes to Gallup, New Mexico, Joyce and Paul Graves are front and center among the participants.

It was only natural, then, that they should sign up to take part in Celebration on the Hill 2006, a Relay For Life on a massive scale that will bring thousands of advocates to Washington, DC, next week to press for greater funding for cancer research and programs. The event is sponsored by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), a sister organization of the American Cancer Society focused on advocacy.

As event "Ambassadors," these retired schoolteachers will meet face to face with legislators, urging them to give cancer a prominent place on their political and fiscal agendas. The couple speaks from deep personal commitment to the cause. Joyce and Paul are both cancer survivors who have benefited first hand from new developments in cancer treatment.

A Long History of Volunteering

It all began back in 1993, when Joyce was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 44. Her treatment was difficult: surgery with lymph node removal, chemotherapy, and 6 weeks of daily radiation therapy. At the time, the nearest radiotherapy facility was in Albuquerque, 2 hours from home. Joyce rented an apartment in the city and had her parents come stay with her there; Paul continued working in Gallup during the week and visited on weekends.

After treatment ended, Joyce was given tamoxifen, a drug shown to reduce the risk of the breast cancer returning. But the drug left her depressed, edgy, and cranky so she quit taking it after about a year.

"I would cry at the drop of a hat, wouldn't want to go to work, didn't want to see anybody. It was awful," she explains. "I finally decided, if I choose to go off this I might have a shorter life, but it will be a better life."

A bright spot among the physical and emotional exertion: a Reach to Recovery visit. This ACS program pairs newly diagnosed breast cancer patients with trained breast cancer survivors who can offer them understanding and support. The experience inspired Joyce to get involved with ACS herself.

"I wanted to become a volunteer, and I jumped in" she recalls. She started with Reach to Recovery, then branched out into other regional and national activities.

An ACS summit in 2001 showed Joyce just how important research was to improving the lives of cancer patients. A longtime ACS volunteer, Phylecia Wilson, spoke about her experience with a new treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), Gleevec (imatinib mesylate).

"All I could remember about this woman was her getting up and saying she had cancer and was on a new drug and had no side effects," Joyce says. "I thought it was wonderful."

She found out just how wonderful the following year, when Paul was diagnosed with CML and put on the same drug.

"I called my staff partner to tell her and she reminded me about Phylecia and that's when I knew Paul would be OK," Joyce says.

New Treatments, New Experiences

Paul's cancer experience was dramatically different from his wife's. Since his diagnosis he has taken 4 Gleevec pills a day, with no major side effects from his treatment.

"That's nothing compared to what Joyce went through," he says. "I feel guilty because I just take pills and she had to be in the hospital."

But Joyce isn't resentful of progress. And though treatment for breast cancer isn't as simple as taking a pill, advances have been made -- and Joyce has lived them.

Just a few months after Paul's diagnosis, Joyce's doctors detected another breast tumor. She thought she knew what lay in store for her, but things were different the second time around.

"They kept saying, 'We don't do that anymore,' " she says, describing her initial consultations with her medical team. "It was like I had come from the Dark Ages -- just within 9 years I could not believe the improvements and new techniques that were being done."

This time, the relatively new procedure of sentinel lymph node biopsy indicated the cancer had not spread to any lymph nodes, sparing her more extensive surgery and chemotherapy. And instead of tamoxifen, she takes the aromatase inhibitor Arimidex (anastrozole), a newer drug that is more effective than tamoxifen and appears to have fewer side effects.

The Graveses hope their story will help drive home the value of continued cancer research.

"Paul is alive because of research," Joyce emphasizes. "[New discoveries] are coming fast and furious."