Survivor of Adolescent Cancer Takes Nothing for GrantedAug 22, 2014
Julie Turner describes herself as an average 56-year-old woman, a mother and grandmother, a retired school administrator, an American Cancer Society volunteer, and a very lucky person. A survivor of Hodgkin disease from age 17, Turner says she is amazed at everything she has in her life today.
“Cancer gave me an early brush with life and death that in turn gave me an early maturity and understanding of the importance of family, friends, and hope,” said Turner.
Memories of cancer
In fall 1974, Turner was constantly tired and had little appetite. The lymph nodes in her neck were enlarged. Doctors first thought she had mononucleosis, but when her symptoms continued to get worse they biopsied one of the nodes and diagnosed her with stage III Hodgkin disease, a type of lymphoma. It’s a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes. She began a treatment of chemotherapy and radiation. She stayed in the hospital for the first month or so, and then continued her chemotherapy as an outpatient.
After leaving the hospital, Turner went back to school, where the school nurse and the principal took her under their wing. They permitted her to stay in class as long as possible, then visit the clinic, then return to class when she felt better. Experts agree that going back to school as soon as possible after a cancer diagnosis helps keep challenges to a minimum and Turner agrees. She said going back to school gave her a sense of normalcy that she needed in her life.
Through it all, Turner says her mother, her primary caregiver, was her source of strength.
“She held my hand through pain, caressed my forehead through fear, questioned every medication and treatment, and boosted my wavering spirits. My mother never let me feel sorry for myself or allowed me to believe that I would not live a rich, full life. One day after an outpatient treatment, those awful side effects began and my mom had to pull the car over to let me throw up on the way home. A state highway patrolman pulled behind us and told her that we could not park along the side of the highway. We would have to be on our way. My mother took him behind the car for a ‘mother chat’ and before I knew it we were following the patrolman – lights and sirens – at what seemed to be 100 miles an hour for an escort home. In a strange way, I was lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer at such a young age. It allowed me to experience that powerful source of strength in a person that may otherwise have been taken for granted.”
Turner says although she received cutting-edge care and life-saving treatment through The Ohio State University Medical Center, little emphasis in those days was devoted to management of side effects such as joint pain, nausea and vomiting, and emotional distress. She says she had many dark days. Her mother received little information from the medical care team about how to care for her at home.
Today, cancer patients are more likely to receive a detailed follow-up plan for continuing care after treatment. In addition, doctors have more remedies available to treat physical and emotional side effects.
Giving back through the American Cancer Society
It was only later as an adult that Turner learned her family had received support from the American Cancer Society during her treatment. A Society staffer had regular conversations with Turner’s mother to reassure and console her. The Society had a hand in her transfer to a leading research facility and supplied travel assistance so that her family could be close to her.
In 1996, Turner was working as a school administrator when a co-worker, also a cancer survivor, suggested they get involved in the Clark County Ohio Relay For Life event, the American Cancer Society’s signature event that raises money to invest in research and to provide information and services to cancer patients and caregivers. For Turner that was the first step toward what has become her life’s mission. She has served as a team member, team captain, and committee chair. She’s received awards for Volunteer of the Year and Clark County Survivor of the Year.
“In the early Relays, I felt with each lap, with each dollar raised, I was doing everything in my power to end cancer suffering and death,” said Turner. “But now for me, this feeling has begun to grow in a different direction. I need Relay For Life; I need to celebrate life but I also need to educate others, and through my voice enable others to have the personal strength to face their own challenges.”
In 2005, Turner became involved with the American Cancer Society’s affiliate advocacy organization, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACSCAN). Her volunteer work with ACSCAN involves meeting with Senators and Congressional leaders in Washington DC to ask them to vote for legislation that supports cancer patients and survivors.
Turner has held several leadership positions on the Volunteer Leadership Council of Clark County, Ohio. Through that organization she has been instrumental in bringing American Cancer Society events to her local area. They include the Pan Ohio Hope Ride, which raises money for programs such as Hope Lodge, which provides free lodging to cancer patients and their caregivers when they need treatment away from home. And Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, one of nearly 300 walks nationwide that raise millions of dollars every year to fund breast cancer research and provide information, services, and access to mammograms for women who need them. The Springfield, Ohio event raised about $45,000 last year.
Also last year, Turner overcame her anxiety of public speaking and attended training sessions for Voice of Hope to help her learn how to tell her cancer story. The first time she spoke at an engagement, she was so nervous she broke into hives. But now that she has about 30 speeches under her belt, she says it’s gotten easier.
“After you have spoken and someone comes up afterwards and thanks you and says, ‘My son was diagnosed,’ or ‘I was diagnosed,’ or ‘I understand when you cried with your mother,’ then you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Those hives were worth it.”
Turner says the highlight of her Voice of Hope experience so far has been speaking at the Ohio State University Relay For Life. “I always felt Ohio State was sort of my home,” said Turner. “They saved my life.”
‘The ugly cancer dragon’
Turner says that although she has beaten cancer, it left its mark. “It is part of me. It’s who I am and what I am. I feel I slayed the ugly cancer dragon, but it doesn’t ever really go away. Almost every ache and pain I have I think, ‘Oh my! Here it is! It’s back!’ It’s been almost 40 years and I still think about it every day.”
The radiation Turner received as part of her cancer treatment took away her ability to bear children, a side effect her doctors warned was possible. Today, children often get lower doses of radiation, which reduces their risk for long-term effects.
“I have a wonderful adoptive daughter,” said Turner, “but knowing I couldn’t bear children has been on my shoulder. But I am very healthy, can do want I want to do, exercise regularly, am very active, watch my nutrition, and consider myself a very lucky person. That’s my long term effect.”
In 2007, Turner’s mother died from cancer – doctors were not able to determine the type – at age 79. “Even though my mother is no longer with me,” said Turner, “I carry the memory of her courage with me every single day. She lives on in my memories and to this day when I listen to my heart I can hear her say, ‘Fight hard, Julie.’”
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