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05-19-03: Area cancer survivor walks with hope

The Daily Standard

    Charyl Luth never stopped smiling as she walked along a paved path lined with luminaries Friday night at the Mercer County Fairgrounds.
    As one of 47 cancer survivors registered to take part in the Relay for Life victory lap at the Mercer County Fairgrounds, she considered each step a celebration of life.
    This marked the second time she and her 14-month-old son, Jason, have participated in the event, which raises money for the American Cancer Society - money needed to fund research, education, advocacy and services.
    In 2002, mother and son traveled the same route, only she did the walking as he slept in her arms.
    "I carried him through my battle with cancer," the 34-year-old Rockford woman explained. "It only seemed right to carry him along on the victory lap and let everybody see there is hope after a cancer diagnosis."
    Luth, an accountant at Fanning & Howey Associates in Celina and a part-time Mary Kay consultant, learned she was pregnant in the summer of 2001. Although delighted at the prospect of having a fourth child, she could not shake a nagging suspicion that something was wrong.
    Her fears were confirmed 17 weeks into the pregnancy by the presence of a hard lump in her breast. The family doctor offered two options - monitor the status for a month or have ultrasound studies. Luth chose the latter.
    "I went home and did research on the internet," she said. "I wanted to know what to expect."
    Technicians performed the ultrasound and then came back for additional views. She saw the surgeon the following day and he scheduled a biopsy. Pathology results indicated the presence of an aggressive form of cancer.
    Instead of checking into an area hospital for surgery, Luth opted for referral to James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University in Columbus. The medical team carefully explained the options in light of her pregnancy. Radiation was not one of them.
    She underwent a modified radical mastectomy 20 weeks into the pregnancy. Even in the midst of uncertainty, there was reason to celebrate. Tests indicated the malignancy had not spread to lymph nodes.
    "Given the size and type of cancer, the team recommended four chemotherapy treatments," she said. "The thought of taking strong drugs scared me because of the effect they might have on the baby. Doctors don't even want you to take cold medicine or aspirin during pregnancy, let alone strong drugs capable of killing cancer cells."
    Specialists explained chemotherapy can be administered safely during the third trimester of pregnancy. They prescribed a series of three treatments before allowing her blood count to return to normal levels in preparation for delivery. The final treatment would come a week to 10 days following birth.
    Luth, who initially proclaimed "no toxins," finally agreed to chemotherapy after learning the odds of reoccurrence were 40 percent without treatment.
    "The odds of it coming back were just 20 percent with treatment," she said. "The next 20 to 30 years are so important to me. God blessed me with children, and I need the time to raise them."
    Luth and her husband, Mark, explained everything about the disease and the side effects of treatment to the children - Tim, 17, Tara, 11, and Derek, 9. Their mother's positive attitude proved infectious and they were prepared when she began wearing hats to match her maternity shirts. Her hair fell out by the handful starting on day 17.
    "I told myself I could get through surgery, chemotherapy and losing my hair," she said. "I considered the birth of the baby as my reward."
    The weeks preceding delivery seemed to creep by at a snail's pace. Worries persisted but all indications pointed to a healthy baby. The atmosphere in the delivery room March 16, 2002, was subdued. The lusty cry and the doctor's assuring words were like beautiful music.
    Jason arrived a week ahead of schedule weighing 71/2 pounds. He was perfectly formed and totally healthy. The happy mother proclaimed him a blessing, shedding tears of relief and gratitude.
    "Cancer changes your life in a way nothing else can," Luth said. "You quickly learn not to take anything for granted including sunrises, sunsets, dishes and laundry. It affects not only you but the people around you - your husband, children, parents and co-workers."
    The ambitious mother returned to work in June and then launched into helping secure passage of a bond issue in the Parkway school district. She has completed classes at Wright State University-Lake Campus and will receive an associate degree in business administration next month.
    Luth doesn't allow cancer to intrude into her everyday life. However, she admits periods of rising apprehension just before her three-month checkups. Her latest "reality check" last week indicated no problems on the horizon.
    "God never sends you more than you can handle," she said. "I truly believe you can beat cancer with a positive attitude, medication, prayer and support."
    She smiles at the mention of support, adding her husband has been a source of strength from day one and so has everyone from children to co-workers. She never experienced feelings of loneliness because there was always someone calling, praying, delivering meals or sending e-mails.
      Luth, who wants to become a Reach to Recovery volunteer in order to help other breast cancer patients, advocates early detection. She considers her own brush with the disease an opportunity to sow seeds of awareness.
    "Learn how to check your breasts," she said. "Listen to your body. If you suspect something is wrong, check it out. Don't be afraid to seek a second opinion."
    She takes comfort in what today offers and doesn't waste time thinking about what the future might hold.
    "Every day I thank God for the miracle of life - my life and my baby's life. What better gifts could there be?"


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