Local cyclist overcomes cancer, kidney transplants11/6/08

Friend steps up with ‘gift of life’

Nov. 6, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Williston resident Stephanie Fraser loves to ride and finds any time on a bicycle a fortunate gift. Fraser, a cancer survivor who has had two kidney transplants over the past 28 years, credits her love of the outdoors as a way of staying healthy in the face of adversity.


    Courtesy photo
Stephanie Fraser, a cancer survivor and kidney transplant recipient, gives an interview to a reporter in Austin, Texas after completing the Livestrong Challenge last month.

And she credits her good friend, Michelle Pierce of Williston, for giving an “incredible gift of life” in regards to the second kidney transplant.

“I really want to recognize this incredible gift she’s given me,” Fraser said.

Fraser and Pierce have known each other for more than 13 years and are both social workers by profession; Fraser works at Fletcher Allen Health Care and Pierce works at Visiting Nurse Association Hospice in Colchester. And when Fraser was in need of a second kidney transplant, Pierce said yes without a second thought.

“It was something I felt I had to do,” Pierce said.

Medical adversity

Fraser had her first kidney transplant 28 years ago when she was 18. When her kidneys failed during her senior year of high school, she was put on dialysis, graduating from her hospital bed. Eventually, a healthy kidney was found from a recently deceased individual and Fraser was able to start living normally again.

Fraser said transplanted kidneys only last for 13 years, but she was able to go double that time period. However, she was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, and eventually the shock to her body from the illness and its treatments forced the need for a second transplant, which she had this spring.

Fraser has become a transplant survivor advocate, and has participated in both the national and international World Transplant Games racing her bike. It was at the world games in Toronto in November 2005 when she noticed a strange pain.

“As an athlete, you know your body,” Fraser explained.

Upon returning, Fraser and her doctor discovered she had ovarian cancer. The silver lining in the news was the cancer was caught in its first stages — only 10 percent of ovarian cancer is found at this stage, Fraser said — and it could be treated.

Fraser took a five-month medical leave from work and went through surgery and what she called a “tough” six cycles of chemotherapy. In the end, Fraser said the best feeling in the world was getting back on her bike and riding. She trained for her first Livestrong charity ride, held in Philadelphia in November 2006, just months after completing her treatment.

Livestrong is the cancer foundation of cyclist and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. A cancer survivor, Armstrong holds charity rides every year across the country and raises millions of dollars annually for cancer research.

“I watched (Fraser) all through her (cancer) treatment and it was amazing to see what she was doing afterwards,” Pierce said.

But in the year following the cancer treatment, it became obvious the first kidney transplant was wearing down and Fraser was in dire need of a second one. At first her sister was deemed a perfect match, but a complication arose before surgery and she was ruled out. Then her two sisters-in-law tried to help, but were also rejected.

“I had been running on 20 percent renal function and I could feel my energy level dropping,” Fraser said.

She feared she would have to go on dialysis. That’s when Pierce, who had been deemed a perfect match, stepped up.

“For me, it was really a no-brainer,” Pierce said, adding she had the full support of her family.

Fraser said she’ll be “eternally grateful” to Pierce and was surprised how quick she agreed to it.

“It’s probably our line of work,” Fraser said. “We see a lot of cancer and coping-with-life issues.”

The transplant surgery took place on June 18 at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Pierce said there was some pain after the surgery, and she took six weeks off to recover. Fraser did the same and within a few months was back on the bike, riding around town.

“It felt natural,” Fraser said. “It always feels natural.”

Again, Fraser had a goal to ride in another event, choosing to do the Livestrong Challenge in Austin, Texas. She chose to do the 50-mile ride and participated last month with more than 3,500 cyclists from around the country. She even got to meet Armstrong.

Fraser said she plans to be at the next National Transplant Games in Wisconsin in 2010 and said she’d be bringing Pierce along as well.