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Posted: April 23, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Bestowed blessings

Her bone marrow cancer would not be a death sentence

Brittany Thomas/

Never giving up: Barbara Hunt was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, working through a long year of tough chemotherapy to force the disease into complete remission. She now walks each year in Relay for Life events, raising as much as $35,000 with the ...

Two weeks before Barbara Hunt was scheduled to retire she decided to get eyelid surgery on a droopy eyelid that had gotten worse as she aged. She never expected to be faced with a battle for her life.

Hunt’s first eyelid surgery showed no improvement on the condition called ptosis and a second surgery three months later had the same results. Hunt was referred by her ophthalmologist to the Emory Eye Clinic who ordered an MRI for her eyeball, which was protruding by this point. The MRI showed that Hunt had a tumor.

"My diagnosis was made two weeks before my retirement," said Hunt. "The surgeon told me immediately after my surgery that it was lymphoma but I was so sedated that I didn’t remember. I had to get the details from my husband and son who were there with me. My initial reaction was shock, fear, but at that time, lots of hope because there was the possibility that it was contained to the eye orbit."

That possibility was dashed four weeks later. Several tests over the next few weeks showed no cancer, until the last test which was a bone marrow biopsy. That test showed that Hunt’s cancer was in her bone marrow with a 50 percent involvement and that she was at Stage 4.

"That was my most fearful time," she said. "I was in the office of my oncologist with my husband Wayne when I was told. The official diagnosis was Malignant B Cell Lymphoma."

Hunt wasn’t a stranger to cancer. She had nursed her mother through ovarian cancer for more than three years before she died in 1999. According to Hunt she knew the symptoms for ovarian, lung, colon cancer and melanoma because along with her mother, her father, sister-in-law and grandmother had all succumbed to those types of cancer. However, she knew very little about lymphoma and never thought about the area under the eyelid as being a place that contained a lymph node.

Treatment started just before Christmas 2005. Hunt endured six strong chemotherapy treatments every 21 days. The treatments included five different chemotherapy drugs, one of which kept her from sleeping at night, gave her excruciating headaches and had her "climbing the walls."

Her first two treatments caused her to break out in a rash, have constant sneezing spells, a drop in blood pressure and a racing heart. It was determined that one of her medications needed to be delivered at a much slower rate. Every treatment had Hunt staying at the hospital for about eight hours.

"Chemo is tough," said Hunt. "I was given papers with a list of possible side effects and I think I had them all. I was told that I would loose my hair and two days after Christmas it started coming out by the handfuls."

Her solution? To make an appointment at her hairdressers to have her head shaved. She had already purchased a wig and several hats to wear in preparation for just such an occasion.

Hunt’s veins became so bad that a port had to be installed but it caused an infection and had to be removed. Both her white and red blood cells dropped, she endured nausea and after six treatments of strong chemotherapy was told that she needed to continue with one of the drugs used to fight her cancer for two more years.

On May 25, 2006, Hunt began that therapy every other month. At the end of the treatments she was given another bone marrow biopsy and finally told that she was in complete remission. Although Hunt’s doctors told her the type of cancer she had could return, she was also informed that it could be treated again and that constant research is being done on new drugs.

"New treatments and a cure is the reason that I participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life," said Hunt. "I took my last strong chemo treatment on March 30, 2006, and I walked in my first Relay for Life on April 28."

Hunt has walked with Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church’s team ever since. The small church has between 40-50 in attendance every Sunday but during the past four years team leaders Karen Walden and Teresa Fricke have led the team to raise $35,000 in donations for cancer research. New treatments and a cure are the very reason Hunt walks every year.

"I realize that some people think that it [cancer] is a death sentence," said Hunt. "But I was optimistic the entire time I went through treatments and I am still optimistic. Even though my oncologist told me that my type of cancer could very likely recur, he assured me that a recurrence was not a death sentence... I feel very blessed that God has granted me these extra years by putting my cancer in remission," she continued. "I think God every day for the many blessings he has bestowed on me."

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