Cancer survivor makes change for others

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Stephanie Fraser had been a social worker for cancer patients for seven years when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last fall.

“Just dealing with the cancer diagnosis and going through the treatment takes everything out of you,” said Fraser, who works in the Fletcher Allen Health Care Hematology/ Oncology Clinic.

Last October, doctors found the ovarian mass; mid-November Fraser, 44, was in surgery to have it removed. The cancer, doctors determined, was in the earliest stage. Fraser began chemotherapy Dec. 1, and continued every three weeks through March.

Fraser was accustomed to life-threatening medical situations; for more than 26 years, she has lived with a kidney transplant. Such transplants, on average, are expected to last 13 years. The cancer diagnosis was a new challenge, but not just for Fraser.

“It’s harder on the family watching you, I think, than being a patient and going through it yourself,” Fraser said. Her greatest concern was her daughter Abby, age seven at the time of the diagnosis. “You never want to see your kids see you sick.”

Her husband, Kent, and their dogs – a cockapoo named Sophie, and Blake, a black lab and golden retriever mix – were an enormous support as she recovered.

“These guys,” she said, pointing to Sophie and Blake, “they got walks. We went into the woods every day.”

By September, she was strong enough to ride her bicycle 100 miles for a Lance Armstrong Foundation fundraiser.

“It was tough training this summer, but I did it,” said Fraser, whose monthly blood draws are now normal.

She raised $5,000 for the foundation. But for Fraser, there was more she wanted to give.

Action begot action: Last month she found herself as one of 700 people chosen to attend the inaugural LiveStrong Lance Armstrong Foundation Summit. The goal of the Austin, Texas event was to broaden the awareness of unmet physical, emotional and practical needs of those living with cancer.

“I was fortunate enough to have what I needed,” Fraser said, noting she had good disability insurance, a supportive family and an accommodating workplace. “I have a stronger desire to make sure that cancer patients get what they need.”

Over three days, Fraser and other cancer survivors and caregivers from 49 states developed personal action plans to bring back to their towns and states.

Lance Armstrong, Fraser said, is “a big advocate for wanting people to share their stories and experiences and learn from one another, to do something about it rather than sitting there. He wants you to take it and go that step beyond and make a difference.”

Fraser said Armstrong’s books about his struggle with cancer – which started well before he won the Tour de France seven consecutive times – had been an inspiration to many of her patients. Armstrong not only started a foundation to raise money and provide information, but lobbies Congress on cancer policies.

The LiveStrong Summit provided many examples of people taking their experiences with cancer – or their grief at having lost someone to cancer – to make change right around them, Fraser said. One father from California lost his five-year-old son to leukemia; when he learned there were children near him who did not have the transportation they needed to get to their chemotherapy treatments, Fraser said, he began a transportation service.

Fraser’s personal action plan will stay on paper. Flipping through a big binder in the kitchen of her house in North Williston, Fraser said her focus is the creation of a comprehensive handbook for cancer patients that can be used statewide.

The handbook, she hopes, will help make the journey more positive by putting in one place the information necessary to understand how to navigate insurance and other bureaucratic processes, as well as knowing basic things like which Web sites are best for reliable information and connecting with other patients.

Fraser looks forward to using her personal and professional experiences to continue helping others. There is one overarching question she wants to answer: “What can we be doing to make a cancer survivor’s journey the most positive one it can be?”