After working in the news industry for 35 years, Anne Weathersby was ready for a change. Within a few months of her retirement in 2015, the Chevy Chase, Md., resident was already traveling for freelance photography assignments and planning a trip to Paris with her husband—“as kind of a ‘Yay, I’m retired’ celebration,” she said.
But shortly before they left, an annual mammogram led to a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, which is likelier to spread and recur than other types. It set in motion a journey that would change not only the course of Weathersby’s retirement, but also her overall outlook. “I just think it’s so important to take back your life, if you can,” she said.
For National Cancer Survivors Month, a worldwide celebration in recognition of anyone with a history of cancer, Weathersby, 70, and other survivors are speaking out about their experiences. Approximately 15.5 million people in the United States are currently living with or previously had cancer, and that number is expected to reach 20.3 million by 2026. Cancer mortality rates are also declining steadily, and survivors are living longer, creating a new sense of urgency around improving their quality of life and easing their financial burden.
Soon after being diagnosed, Weathersby began getting things in order. She lined up a radiation oncologist and a surgeon, and then she packed her bags for Paris. The trip offered her a glimpse into the tangle of emotions she would confront over the coming months: “I remember having a great time during the day, then crying myself to sleep at night,” she said.
Back home, her long-time internist, Edward Cullen, referred her to Colette Magnant, a board-certified breast surgeon and the director of Sullivan Breast Center, part of Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center at Sibley Memorial Hospital, in Washington, D.C. “She really seemed to care, was very thorough, and was very on top of things,” Weathersby said.
Four rounds of chemotherapy followed, which dramatically changed Weathersby’s daily functionality. “I lost my appetite, I lost my energy, I lost my purpose,” Weathersby said. On one especially tough day, she had to stop three times to rest while walking to the end of her short block.
But over time, and with support from her two sons and her husband—who is also a cancer survivor—Weathersby felt a shift. “I got to a point, actually during chemo, of saying, ‘Hey, I need to take charge. This is ridiculous.’ I started getting involved in a lot of activities, as many as I could manage, to bring hope back.”
She joined a meditation and mindfulness class and a gentle yoga class at Sibley. And the hospital’s oncology nutritionist and clinical dietitian specialist, Lynda McIntyre, counseled Weathersby before and during chemotherapy—and continued advising her once treatment ended. Weathersby’s doctors say she has no evidence of disease now, but the recurrence rate for triple negative breast cancer is relatively high, so nutrition and exercise, including swimming, have become extremely important to her daily life.
And, perhaps even more so than she could have imagined when she retired, Weathersby has been trying new things. She joined a program that teaches breast cancer survivors how to row, for example, and traveled to Savannah, Ga., to photograph the recovery of a Civil War-era ship. “I felt like the best way was to just jump in with both feet and try to do as much as I could. And I feel like it’s made a big difference to me,” she said.
By sharing her story and celebrating Survivors Month, Weathersby hopes to raise awareness of the wealth of programs and activities available to cancer survivors, so that others can experience the benefits of getting involved. There are already more opportunities now than there were when her husband was ill, she said. “His cancer was a few years ago, and I think the situation has improved a lot.”
A setback leads to immunotherapy
No one else in Pablo Milciades Araujo’s family had experienced cancer before. “So it was very strange for me,” he said, when doctors biopsied a “little ball” underneath his chin last spring. He had recently retired from a career as a construction contractor in the D.C. area, and often traveled with his wife, a retired teacher, to Paraguay to visit family.
A slew of tests followed, and Milciades Araujo, 65, was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. He began treatment with Brandi Page, assistant professor of radiation oncology and molecular radiation sciences at Suburban Hospital, another Johns Hopkins affiliate. Later, he received immunology treatment from Sibley Hospital under the helm of Karim Boudadi, a clinical associate and assistant professor at the Kimmel Cancer Center. At Sibley, Milciades Araujo connected with staff and said that the hospital “was like being home,” but after chemotherapy and 35 days of radiation, he’d lost his voice and about 80 pounds. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t smell any kind of food,” Milciades Araujo said.
Two months later, a CT scan revealed that the cancer had metastasized in his lungs, and doctors told Milciades Araujo that his current treatment would no longer work. “That was the worst part,” he said. At that point, his wife “was crying all the time. She was very worried about me.” He considered a clinical trial of two different chemotherapy drugs but decided he could not put himself through it again. Page suggested an alternative. “That’s when she started talking about immunotherapy, that I should not be afraid to try it,” he said. “And I did, and I’m happy I did it.”
He began immunotherapy treatments every three weeks last December, and his tumors have been shrinking steadily since then, from 7.5 centimeters in October to one centimeter in late May. “Now I’m looking forward to having the cancer go into remission,” he says. “It may come back or it may not come back. But I’m not going to worry about it.”
A rollercoaster of diagnoses
Five years ago, after being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma in her home country of Moldova, Fatima Djalo moved to Washington, D.C. with her fiancé. Within a month, they married and went on their honeymoon, and were preparing to travel to Vienna for his diplomatic work. That’s when her cancer reemerged.
Djalo’s treatment team at Sibley Memorial Hospital recommended chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, a more advanced treatment plan than she’d previously received—bone marrow transplants are not available in Moldova, and the type of chemotherapy she received there is much harsher than what’s available in the U.S.
Djalo, now 29, also underwent hormone injections to freeze her eggs—and did it all within months of arriving in the United States. Lacking a social network here—she shopped for wedding dresses with her husband because she knew no one else, save one mutual friend of theirs—she said that her doctors and nurses became her friends, and that the hospital was a place a safety and healing: “Their level of care, their sensitivity. I could feel the deep care of pretty much every individual that works there.”
By 2016, Djalo was feeling well enough to begin a graduate program in political science at nearby Howard University. And she was eager to do so; lymphoma had interrupted her last year of undergraduate studies, as well as her job as a morning TV show host in Moldova, where she was the first black woman to hold that position. “I was so excited because finally I [was] going to have my own friends and be a part of American society and culture,” she said.
Then, in her second year of graduate school, a routine gynecological appointment revealed abnormalities. Djalo was diagnosed with a rare form of aggressive cervical cancer, and told by doctors that she would need a hysterectomy.
In the weeks that followed, her emotions swung from numbness to despair. “I just felt like I’d had enough,” she said. But family and hospital staff buoyed her, including Jeffrey Yen Lin, director of the Sibley Center for Gynecologic Oncology and Advanced Pelvic Surgery, as well as the various nurses and other employees with whom she crossed paths. “All of them matter so, so much,” she said. “We are not survivors by ourselves. It literally takes a village.”
Djalo finished another round of chemotherapy about the same time that she graduated from Howard, in spring 2017.Now, she is a program coordinator for a healing and arts organization for cancer patients in Washington, D.C., and she aspires to create a platform for cancer survivors and others to share their stories. Djalo is currently in remission, but is still closely monitored by her doctors.
In 2016, she was diagnosed with Lymphodema, a condition that affects the lymphatic system, often a result of lymph node damage or removal during cancer treatment. But Djalo says she is feeling “great”, and that listening to her body and treating herself gently are important to managing the condition. “I am looking forward to living my life to the fullest, not wasting a single minute in sorrow,” she said.