HEALTH and WELLNESS: Cancer — Stories of survival

By Mike Taylor • Last Updated 1:34 pm on Thursday, June 07, 2012

Emma Fowler, 12, of Greenville, holds up necklaces of beads, which each bead represented a feat in her recovery of Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

The sound of glass breaking somewhere downstairs when you’re tucked safely into a 3 a.m. bed; the low growl of an unseen dog on a dark summer’s night; unexpected knocking from beneath your car’s hood when you’re miles from home. All these qualify as scary noises.

But the scariest noise of all, the one most people fear above all else, may be summed up in three words: “You have cancer.”

Only those who have heard these words first-hand truly understand the power they carry. Power to change, in the blink of an eye, a human life. One moment, all is well. The next, you’re in a fight for your health, your livelihood, your very existence.

Cancer changes everything.

Though each story is different, all contain common threads; hope, frustration, pain, love, sometimes defeat. With Relay for Life just around the corner, we look at the tales of three area survivors.

Katy McDonough

A music teacher at Walnut Hills and Cedar Crest elementary schools with 28 years on the job, Katy was “around 50” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the winter of 2010. Due to the nature of the diagnosis, it was over a week before Katy knew exactly how far the cancer had progressed and what her treatment options might be.

“That’s the worst thing,” Katy said. “You’re in limbo. You don’t know the scope of it and you don’t know your options. Sometimes it’s a matter of days or even weeks before you get a clearer picture of what’s going on.”

Katy McDonough

In Katy’s case, the options were limited. A specialist recommended an aggressive course of treatment, one which included a double mastectomy, followed by several reconstructive surgeries. Even so, Katy — who has remained cancer-free since the surgery — considers herself fortunate.

“I feel very lucky,” she said. “The technology is so much more advanced now and they’ve made so many improvements in dealing with the pain and suffering and the danger. They really know what they’re doing.”

Katy’s appreciation for her current good health now runs deeper because of her experience, but also because of the other cancer patients and survivors she has come to know over the years.

“You just can’t help but feel grateful when you see others who haven’t been as fortunate,” Katy said. “You really feel blessed. I’ve always been a glass half full kind of person and now I’m ready for Chapter Two in my life.”

Betty Jane “BJ” Conley

Talking about her cancer diagnosis doesn’t come easily to Grand Rapids resident Betty Conley, “BJ” to those who know her. She shares details reluctantly, when she shares them at all.

Like Katy, BJ’s diagnosis was breast cancer, which eventually required the removal of her left breast. These days she gets tested every six months; that wasn’t the case prior to her mastectomy.

Betty Jane 'BJ' Conley

“I didn’t get tested back then,” she said. “It was just kind of luck that they caught it early on.”

Following her mastectomy, BJ underwent other treatments, at least one of which she is still on. But she’s been cancer-free for three years and hopeful for a healthy future.

BJ said her faith helped her through the darkest moments.

“When I was diagnosed I did a lot of praying,” she said. “I kept my faith and I wasn’t scared or worried. I figured it was out of my hands. I just did what I had to do.”

This is BJ’s first year participating in Relay for Life.

Emma Fowler

Those who think cancer is a disease that targets adults only should spend a few minutes talking with Greenville Middle School student Emma Fowler. Now 12, Emma received her cancer diagnosis at age 8.

Emma had Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer usually seen in teenagers and young adults that groups around the bones. In Emma’s case, the cancer was wrapped around her spinal column.

“The doctor told me I might never walk again,” Emma recalled. “My mom kind of talked to me about it later and asked if I wanted to research it. I said no. I was afraid and didn’t want to know much about it.”

Emma Fowler's “beads of courage” necklace

Doctors performed surgery on Emma’s cancer within days of its discovery. After that, she received an aggressive chemotherapy and radiation regimen that left her bald and frequently nauseous. Finally, she spent months in physical therapy, learning to walk again.

“I had to do a little something every day, even if it was just walking down the hall with a walker,” she said.

Through it all, Emma received an unending stream of positive reinforcement from family, teachers and friends.

“They were very supportive,” Emma said. “They sent me cards and made me feel good. My family was there whenever I needed to talk or just have someone there. My teachers were great and made sure I didn’t get too far behind.”

At school, Emma’s classmates propped a large, stuffed teddy bear behind her desk in her absence. It quickly became known as the “Emma bear,” something to keep her place on the many days she couldn’t attend classes.

“The most difficult part was missing school,” Emma said. “That and the fact that the cancer always stays with you, in a way. You have to go back every six months to get checked.”

Throughout her ordeal, Emma kept a “beads of courage” necklace; each bead representing one milestone in her cancer treatment. Some signify a simple check-up, others — the larger beads — represent surgeries, blood transfusions, chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Emma’s necklace contains many large beads.

Now cancer-free, Emma radiates a buoyant stamina, both physical and emotional, that attests to her trial by fire.

“I’m stronger now as a person,” she said. “I know what some other kids are going through and figure maybe I can help them deal with things they can’t always tell people about. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that cancer lets you know who your real friends are. The good ones will still be there when it’s over.”

To post your own survivor story or to read others, visit

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