In the face of cancer many in the Miss-Lou are sharing, caring and surviving

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

In the early months of 2009, Phillip Burley accepted his death sentence and moved on.

Doctors in Alexandria gave the Vidalia resident three to six months to live and no hope.

Fourteen months later, Burley attests to the fact that dying of cancer in the Miss-Lou simply isn’t that easy.

The diagnosis

“For the past couple of years, (my wife) Jamie has noticed that I’ve been worn out and drug down,” Phillip said. “It was about (October 2008) that I started cramping in my stomach real bad and it went on until January.”

While Phillip, 43, isn’t the type of person to just go to the hospital for any ache or discomfort, in January 2009 the crippling pain in his abdomen made him seek medical attention in Alexandria.

“The surgeon said I had a lower bowel obstruction,” Phillip said.

After multiple visits to the hospital, it was decided a routine surgery was needed to remove the obstruction.

However, when doctors went in, what they found was not an obstruction — it was stage four colon cancer.

Cancer is normally categorized into five stages — commonly referred to as stages zero through four with stage four exhibiting the most advanced cases and largest tumors.

“I was there by myself with him that day and they were going to go in and do a routine surgery,” Jamie said. “I called my stepdad and told him. He got there one minute before the doctor came out to get me.

“I didn’t know anything was wrong and they asked us to go into the conference room and the doctor said, ‘We have some really bad news.’”

Phillip said the first moments he remembers after waking up from surgery were shared with his wife of 20 years.

“I remember waking up and Jamie leaning over the bed and telling me I had cancer,” Phillip said.

“They told Jamie that it looked like someone had taken a shotgun and shot cancer in me.”

But the initial shock was nothing compared to the shock the Burleys now feel at how he was treated after doctors pinpointed the problem.

With staples in place after the surgery and a stint in his kidney, Phillip and Jamie said not a word was heard from doctors about steps the couple could take to fight Phillip’s disease.

“They never told us to go have the staples removed or anything,” Phillip said.

“I really didn’t have my hopes up from what the doctors in Alexandria said. When I came home, I was content with the fact I was going to die. I wasn’t scared to die because I’m a saved Christian.

“But I was scared to leave my family alone, more than anything.”

Finding hope

While Phillip accepted the verdict of the Alexandria doctors, Jamie searched for ways to keep her family together.

“After we got home, Jamie called our family doctor and he got us an appointment with Dr. Jack Rodriguez in Natchez, and we had an interview with him to see if there was anything we could do,” Phillip said.

“He told me there is no doctor that can tell you when you’re going to die. Nobody but the good Lord knows when you’re going to die.

“He did some tests and decided he would give me chemotherapy.”

The meeting with Rodriguez changed the Burley family forever.

“According to the doctor in Alexandria, I should have died in July,” Phillip said. “That was the same month (Dr. Rodriguez) told me I was in remission.”

Surrounded by survivors

Rodriguez, an oncologist, said he has seen his fair share of cancer cases since moving to the Miss-Lou.

“There are so many cases where patients have been forwarded to me with a certain time to live, but nobody knows except for the Lord how long someone really has,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said much of a patient’s healing comes from faith and positive support.

“You need to have faith and work hard on your therapy, and you’ll see the outcome,” he said.

For Rodriguez and his staff, watching the interplay between the clinic’s patients is a reward unto itself.

“I can hear them talking, and a lot of times they are encouraging each other,” Rodriguez said. “Even from within this office, they create a little family support system.”

Rodriguez said he sees the way positive outside influences help his patients all the time.

“There is a lot of bonding here (in the Miss-Lou). As a doctor, you know your patients. We’re all together on this. And as you treat the patients, you’re going to go to the ballpark and see their kids play,” Rodriguez said.

But the greatest bond isn’t doctor-patient, he said, but patient-patient.

“(Patients) get together here and when you see them in the chemo area, they are sharing and laughing and joking,” Rodriguez said. “Different social classes don’t matter here — they all connect back there.”

While treatments are given in different forms and at different times for many cancer patients, it’s not uncommon for people to wind up spending hours together while receiving or waiting for their treatments.

Bonded by cancer

It’s the shared experience that Phillip and his fellow cancer patients said unites them during their fight against their own specific type of cancer.

Diagnosed with melanoma, Mike Ray sometimes receives treatment alongside Phillip.

Ray said going into his chemo treatments, he didn’t know what to expect.

“I didn’t even know what chemo was,” Ray said. “I was expecting chemo to make me sick, but it surprised me because it didn’t.”

Ray said while he was jarred by the news that he had cancer, sharing stories and experiences with those fighting the same battle as him makes coping easier.

“When I first found out, it was out of the blue, and I quickly found out you need to hear stories like (Phillip’s),” Ray said.

Natchez resident Joe Mitchell, also a part of the group receiving treatment alongside Phillip, was diagnosed with lymphoma in October after finding a bump on his neck.

Within a week, surgery had taken care of the growth but treatment continues and new friendships are forming.

“We take care of each other,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said seeing the continuous flow of faces, some leaving healthy, some never returning, has opened his eyes to the blessings in his life.

“I’ve got very good odds of going into remission,” Mitchell said. “But I see some people who are fighting for next week, and it’s given me a greater appreciation for life.”

Cursed by cancer?

The Miss-Lou often seems unfairly affected by cancer, and local doctors acknowledge that the disease is more prevalent here than in other areas of the country.

“I moved here and started practicing in 2001 and tons of (cancer cases) blew me away,” radiation oncologist Dr. Roderick Givens said. “Cancer rates are disproportionately higher in the (Mississippi) Delta and along the river and river towns.

“I think it’s primarily because of the agricultural-based economy.”

Givens said the use of pesticides on crops combined with poor lifestyle choices lead to many cancer cases.

“It’s lifestyle and exposure to the sun, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, sucking down a fifth of whiskey a day, and exposure to chemicals (that causes cancer),” Givens said.

But a high occurrence of cancer also creates a strong community of survivors, and Givens said the Miss-Lou has what it takes to fight the disease. Faith, personal attitude and strong bonds can make a difference, he said.

“It also has to do with their environment and support system,” he said.

For patient Linda Grinnell, her daughters and family members have been that support system.

But after being diagnosed with breast cancer in October, Grinnell, a Bude resident, said she has also been learning from the support of her chemo family as well.

“I have four children, and they’ve all been there for me,” Grinnell said.

During treatments she likes to sit and listen to other patients and what’s going on in their lives.

“They sit here and tell their stories. They know a lot more than me,” Grinnell said. “I learn a lot from sitting here and listening to what they went through.”

Givens said he always tries to make his patients understand that cancer isn’t something that is cured after one or two treatments of radiation — it’s a process.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Givens said.

Blessed by bonds

The Burleys said one of the biggest blessings from Phillip’s recent battle was seeing the support and continued love of the local community.

“The community astounded me in the support we had and the food brought over to the kids while we were in the hospital,” Jamie said. “Phillip still gets cards.”

But seeing local residents offer support and prayers to their cancer survivors and fighters isn’t uncommon for Miss-Lou Relay for Life Chairman Janis Holder.

Ranked as the No. 2 most successful Relay for Life per capita in the country, Holder said Miss-Lou residents are passionate about Relay because everyone knows someone affected by cancer.

“We’re a small knit community and everybody looks out for their neighbors and family members,” Holder said. “Cancer has hit so many people in our area. It’s not limited to a color, race or gender. It hits everyone —wealthy or poor.”

Holder said volunteering on local teams and participating in Relay events brings cancer patients and their families closer to the community and gives everyone an opportunity to make a difference in the fight against cancer.

“Cancer brings everyone (to Relay) for a common cause,” Holder said.

Holder said Relay events also give area doctors a venue outside of their offices to see their effects on the community.

“We’ve had the most survivors in the State of Mississippi turning out for Relay in recent years,” Holder said. “Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Givens are incredible leaders in our community in the fact they are kind, gentle people who are passionate about their patients.”

Phillip said, the glory of his recovery goes to God and those He used to carry out the plan for his healing.

“It’s a miracle,” he said. “I do know that the Lord has done this to me because there is nothing else it could have been other than Him working miracles through Dr. Rodriguez and leading Jamie to call the doctor.

“There’s no telling how many people out there have had the same thing happen to them,” Phillip said. “If Jamie hadn’t made that first call to our doctor…”

Phillip said he’s learned many things from his fight with cancer, but one stands out.

“Do not give up, no matter what the doctors tell you, there is always hope. The doctors don’t know. Only the Lord knows,” Phillip said.