Leukemia Survivor: ‘Every Day is a Day of Hope’

close up of survivor, Barbara Borrell

Barbara Borrell’s health problems began the day she was born in 1942 when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. For the next 50 years she made nutrition and exercise a priority as a way to help manage her disease. She even embarked on a career as a dietician and nutrition consultant. But in 1993, one of her regular blood tests led to a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

“I cannot tell you the devastation I felt hearing the words, ‘You have an incurable form of blood cancer,’” said Borrell. “When I got the diagnosis I felt like someone had ripped my heart out. I did not know where to go. I had to take care of my brother; I had to take care of my father. I lost everything.”

Borrell’s mother had just died, leaving her to take care of her father, a veteran who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, and her brother, a veteran who lost a leg during the Vietnam war. She was working in the nutrition department at a hospital, but after her diagnosis, she was unable to keep working.

“That’s when the nightmare began,” said Borrell. She lost her home, her car, and her retirement savings. Her short-term disability ran out and she signed up for COBRA, a temporary continuation of her employer health coverage, until that ran out too. She applied for Social Security benefits, but got nowhere.

Getting help, giving back

Borrell called the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 and spoke to a Cancer Information Specialist who gave her a list of resources including ACS programs and other cancer organizations.

Borrell also began writing letters to her congressmen, senators, and governor in her home state of Florida. Finally, she caught the attention of then-US Senator Bob Graham. He personally accompanied Borrell to the Social Security office, where a case manager processed her claim.

Even after getting the help she needed, she continued writing letters and calling politicians. “I’m a legislative advocate. I’m constantly writing letters to congress members and senators asking for more funding for cancer research,” she said.

In 2011, Borrell again needed financial assistance and called the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The group’s co-pay assistance program helped Borrell with some medical expenses, and she’s since become a volunteer. Through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s First Connection program, she is matched with people facing a similar cancer diagnosis to hers, and calls them to offer information and support.

“I contact them and we just discuss. They talk about their feelings, what they’re going through and I make sure they’re aware of things to be taken into consideration and that they’re not alone,” said Borrell. “We usually stay in touch for a year or two, but I’ve stayed in touch with some for 18 years now!”

The American Cancer Society also helped Borrell through its Road To Recovery program, which matches volunteer drivers with people who need rides to cancer treatment. When it’s time to visit the oncologist, Borrell calls and a volunteer driver gets her to and from the appointment. She also took part in a Look Good Feel Better workshop to help her manage appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment. Volunteer professionals showed her how to apply makeup, and cleanse and tone her skin. “I felt like I should be on the cover of Vogue!” said Borrell.

‘Making another touchdown’

You have to have every day the ability to hope, no matter how hard it gets. Every day is a winning day; every day is a day of hope.

Barbara Borrell

After her initial diagnosis, doctors monitored Borrell’s blood chemistry for years. In 2006 she had immunotherapy treatment and in 2010, chemotherapy. She’s been in remission since. Now a senior citizen, she lives in subsidized housing and relies on food stamps to get by with “belittling, but gracious acceptance from me,” she says.

“No one wants to be diagnosed with cancer, but this is what I have, so what am I going to do about it?” said Borrell. “I’m the quarterback on the team of me, my doctors, nurses and technicians. And the team wants to make a touchdown. I’m going to make a touchdown. When I wake up every morning and my blood glucose is fine – by God I’m making another touchdown.”

She says patients need to advocate for themselves by doing research, and calling cancer organizations like the American Cancer Society and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “You have to be the advocate; You have to be the winner; you have to be the survivor,” she said.

When she talks to newly diagnosed blood cancer patients, Borrell stresses the importance of exercising and eating properly. Every day, she herself walks 1 to 2 miles and walks up and down the stairs to her apartment for ½ hour.

“You have to have every day the ability to hope, no matter how hard it gets,” said Borrell. “Every day is a winning day; every day is a day of hope.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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