Cancer Survivors Celebrate Life at Annual Event

Thanksgiving was still a month away, but for a joyous group of Cedars-Sinai patients and their families, the true meaning of the word was at the heart of an emotional tribute at the Skirball Center on Oct. 23.

The Celebration of Life, an annual meeting to honor blood and marrow transplant survivors, took place under bright skies and even brighter arches of brilliantly colored balloons. About 75 patients were the focus of the festivities. For many, it was the first time since leaving the hospital that they were reunited with the doctors, nurses and other caregivers who saw them through one of the most challenging chapters in their lives.

"It's a day that means a lot to all of us," said Michael C. Lill, MD, medical director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. "The staff - particularly the nurses - tend to see the patients when they're in the hospital and are very sick. This is a chance to see the results and to see them doing well."

Parool Shah was 22 years old in June 1993 when her doctor told her she had cancer. Four months later, with her brother as a donor, she underwent a bone marrow transplant. This November, she will celebrate what she calls her 18th re-birthday, the anniversary of her remission.

"Eighteen years ago today, I was in the hospital, prepping for my transplant," Shah said. "That I'm here now, at this event, feels like a miracle."

For the nurses who care for the transplant patients during the punishing weeks of chemotherapy, the Celebration of Life is poignant.

"We see the patients at their very, very lowest point when they're being treated, and here we get to see them at the height of the benefit that they received," said Chuck McClain, RN, a CNIII who has worked at Cedars-Sinai since 2000. "This is a joyful day for us and it really touches my heart."

John Thomas Hall was a teenager when he was paralyzed in a boating accident. He fought his way back to not only walk again but also to become an elite athlete, a pole vaulter who would sail over obstacles 16 feet high. In June 2009, his doctors delivered the news that he had leukemia.

"For all of us here who are survivors, you never forget the day the doctor tells you that you have cancer," Hall said. "That news is embedded in our souls."

When Hall's first round of treatment failed, a bone marrow transplant became his sole option for a cure. He took it on in the same way he approached his athletic career, by turning the months of therapy into manageable increments.

"You set a goal, then you break it down into small parts, and then you go through them," Hall said. "In October, I'll have been cancer-free for a year. I call this my third shot at life."

After the meeting, patients and families and caregivers gathered in the Skirball courtyard for lunch. Children played, parents and grandparents beamed proudly. Doctors and nurses were like rock stars - their former patients proudly introducing them to spouses, family members and friends.

Gladys Herrera, whose husband, Phillip, underwent a transplant this year, fought off tears as she spoke.

"He is the lucky man," she said. "He found his angels here."