September 11, 2011

Cancer survivors share stories, hope

By Craig Crosby ccrosby@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Dale Rackliff probably shouldn't have been there, proudly holding his granddaughter, soaking up the clear blue sky.

click image to enlarge

Audience members laugh during Loretta Laroche's keynote address during Saturday's 13th annual Cancer Survivors Day at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Verna Gregoire, left, and her daughter Anne Gregoire, of Augusta, yell at each other as part of Loretta Laroche's keynote address during Saturday's 13th annual Cancer Survivors Day at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Rackliff, of Oakland, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago. The disease goes to great lengths to avoid success stories, but Rackliff is writing a different ending. Like hundreds of others who gathered for Saturday's 13th annual Cancer Survivors Day at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care, Rackliff now views his life through the prism of a cancer and the hope of kicking it in the teeth.

"We didn't think he'd be here to see her," said Rackliff's longtime partner, Donna Gilbert, looking at Rackliff's 2-year-old granddaughter, Olivia.

"It makes it all worthwhile," said Rackliff, who is in remission.

This was the first time Rackliff has attended a cancer survivors day. He decided to attend this year because he wanted to see the doctors and nurses who have waged the battle with him.

Rackliff also hoped to connect with other cancer survivors. It is encouraging to hear others' stories, he said, even if he is unlikely to speak to many who have his specific form of cancer. Pancreatic cancer has about a 5 percent survival rate.

"I've talked to a lot of them that have already passed," Rackliff said. "I've been very lucky so far."

Talking to the survivors you begin to understand why the treatment of cancer is so often described as a battle. It is an enemy that wants to win. Those whom it attacks take the fight personally.

"You're looking at someone who, by sheer will power, is holding it back," said Lynne White of Readfield, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 and got a new diagnosis in 2009. "Everyone here is looking to do the same thing."

That includes Mary Logan of Augusta, who has been deemed cured of breast cancer. Just saying the word "cured" brings a smile to her face, but she's not ready to let down her guard. Cancer is known for getting up off the mat.

"There's no guarantee about the future," Logan said.

Logan is committed to really living and to helping others still fighting cancer do the same. She continues to volunteer to help cancer patients each week.

"You really feel like you have to give back," she said.

Gedske Szepsy, from Litchfield, said the trick is taking each day as it comes.

"You have to stay positive," she said.

The survivors day is all about staying positive. This is the third event Szepsy has attended, and the first while in remission.

"It's a lot of togetherness," she said. "We're all in the same boat."

Debbie Bowden, the cancer center's nursing director, built on the events theme, "More birthdays, less cancer," and asked those gathered to close their eyes and envision a cupcake with a candle as someone sang happy birthday. Bowden said more birthdays meant chances to witness special events, such as grandchildren being born or children graduating. More birthdays meant living life deliberately, seeking to enjoy every moment.

"Whether or not we have a cancer diagnosis, we all feel that life is short," Bowden said. "I hope from now on, every time you see a cupcake you will remember this day and remember more birthdays, less cancer. Don't miss another moment."

Craig Crosby -- 621-5642

ccrosby@centralmaine.com

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