SUMMIT, NJ — Cancer isn't a laughing matter. But fill a room with cancer survivors, a couple of surgical oncologists, nurses, relatives and friends, be prepared to laugh a lot, hear some songs about the dread disease and even shed a few tears.
That's what happened when the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Overlook Medical Center held its annual National Cancer Survivor's Day Celebration and filled the Bouras Auditorium with survivors and their supporters.
In the end, the message people left with came from all the speakers and survivors, including last year's Survivor Speaker, "John," who is featured in "John's Story," a video advertisement that debuted June 4. It's a simple message: "Where you go for cancer care matters!"
The first hour of the event was free-form. Guests helped themselves to all sorts of food provided by Overlook Food Service and renewed friendships with friends, many of whom them met while at the hospital, during chemotherapy sessions or, in some cases, at previous Survivor Day celebrations. There was a real sense of homecoming, complete with enthusiastic greetings, hugs and lots of catching up.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Lee Starker, a surgical oncologist at Overlook Medical Center, who looked over the crowd and called the turnout "impressive ... I am in utter awe and amazement at the number of people that are here today."
He acknowledged that "cancer is a word that, when heard, strikes fear and depression," in people.
In a deeply personal talk, Dr. Starker said his experience with cancer began when he was quite young. "My father fell ill. I remember him heading off to treatments and whispering to me, 'You are the man of the house.' I was seven," he said.
It was as if the room itself shuddered when he said that and everyone there seemed to reach back in their memory to a similarly difficult moment in their cancer journey.
Pausing from time to time to regain his composure, he told of seeing what the disease did to his father, "physically, emotionally and spiritually ... Like all of you, he pushed on, taking on the beast with amazing intestinal fortitude." Thanks to a radiation oncologist who oversaw his treatment, his father survived "his ordeal, like all of you, to become an amazing member of society," he said. His father, Dr. Paul Starker, is chairman of surgery at Overlook Medical Center.
Dr. Lee Starker said his experience has taught him, "We all have the same needs and wants ... You here today have identified the ultimate need and want for every person, which is to survive. On this Survivors Day, I ask you all to enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride. Congratulations on your amazing journey."
Songwriter John Manion, who was diagnosed nine months earlier with Ampullary cancer, shared his survivor story through music, beginning with a song that described how life can go wrong. He used a song about a road trip as a transition into his story, "The last year of life has been a road trip which ended up at Summit, Overlook. It's been a great ride," said Manion.
A year ago, after a Memorial Day picnic that involved too many hot dogs and wine, he got ill and blamed it on the eating and drinking. He developed "heartburn that wouldn't go away," and started to turn yellow, which produced an initial diagnosis of hepatitis, he said. That was tossed out after an ultrasound indicated he had a problem with his gallbladder. A blockage was found and he said he was "referred to a wonderful surgeon Marc Mandel and ended up having a Whipple procedure on Sept. 8." They removed his gallbladder, part of his pancreas and part of his stomach, but "I still didn't realize I had cancer," he said.
A couple of days later "Dr. Mandel came in and said I had cancer. I cried. It was sort of my worst realization," he said.
While still in the hospital, he spoke to his sister and said, "I can't do the record or go to Europe," because of the cancer, and she replied, "'Not this year.'" That all changed when Dr. Mandel suggested "Maybe you can get something out of this. Maybe if we bring you your guitar," that will help.
It did. Manion said, "I was really struggling, trying to keep a good attitude." That’s when he realized "I had this scar," which is a bit like a roadmap and something most cancer patients have and "came up with the idea for a song about detours and scars." He wrote the song once he was back home in Jersey City, and said that the chorus, didn’t make any sense until he realized he would be singing the song and “you could be, too. This song is about us. This is a song for everyone here.”
“It’s detours and scars, they’re falling from the stars. They catch you when you least expect and they turn you upside down, They spin your world around”
He sang “Detours and Scars” and several other of his own songs, not all of which were about cancer, at the Survivorship Celebration.
When he finished singing, he said, "I got through it and want to thank everyone at Summit Overlook. I've had nothing but great experiences here. ... I've walked away from this whole situation ... I realize we have to keep on keeping on."
The highlight of every Cancer Survivorship gathering at Overlook has been the Timeline of Life, on which survivors pin a card with a blue ribbon on it marking the number of years since their diagnosis, beginning with one month, moving up to 30 or more years. As each time period is called, survivors walk to the front where they are welcomed by nurses, staff members from the Cancer Center. Each survivor receives a boxed present and a flower. Doctors Starker and Mandel greeted each survivor, after which the survivors pinned their ribbons to the Timeline of Life.
Abe Berger of Summit, pinned his ribbon at 27 years, which he and his wife of 62 years Dorothy, credited to the treatment he received at Overlook. He had colon cancer and the surgery, which was performed by Dr. Paul Starker, was on May 21, 1990. "There have been no recurrences," she said.
Before the Survivorship Celebration ended, the audience watched the premiere of "John's Story," the new ad campaign for the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Overlook Medical Center. From the applause, the audience seemed to agree with John’s message, “Where you go for cancer care matters.”