Taking Strides for Survival

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Photo courtesy of Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center

This will mark Joni Alvarez’s 7th year of participating in the Cancer Survivors’ Celebration and Walk, an annual event organized by the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, that is expected to draw close to 4,000 participants to Chicago's Grant Park on June 3.

Alvarez was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2005 and first came to the walk in 2006. Since then she has participated yearly, as a walker and volunteer, and now serves on the Lurie Cancer Center’s Patient and Family Advisory Board, which she says is a way to pay back and pay forward the support she received during her treatment. With the walk just a few weeks away, Alvarez shared her inspirational story of survival with us.

What was your first walk experience like?
It was overwhelming. I had seen walkers before and not really paid close attention to the numbers of people who were either survivors, family members or supporters of survivors. So it’s pretty amazing to see the sheer numbers of people who come out for this.

It’s sad to know that there are that many people in the world with cancer, but they’re there wearing a purple shirt, which means they’ve survived it, or are in the process of treatment, and it’s gratifying to know that something can be done to help them. In some ways it’s a very emotional thing, because it’s once a year. You do stop and reflect on the experience and how far you’ve come.

Joanie AlvarezJoni Alvarez says the Cancer Survivors' Celebration and Walk is a time to reflect on what she has overcome. (Photo courtesy of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center)

The walk is called a celebration. How important do you think a positive outlook is to survivors and to people who are battling cancer right now?
I think it’s really important, especially I’m finding the farther I get away from treatment. It’s in the back of my mind constantly that I went through it, but the farther I get away from it it’s more about how I survived in general, more than how I survived the treatment.

And for me it’s just a day to reflect on what I did go through, and how far I’ve come since that point, and what I’ve learned from it too. The first day of treatment, something I thought was insurmountable and that I couldn’t tackle, I got through. It’s a day to step back and think about that, and also to just be happy that I’m still here and I can be at the walk and support anybody else who has been diagnosed.

What do you think gave you the strength to get through your treatment? 
For me a lot of it was my contact with primarily the doctors and nurses. It was their attitude. They were never sour; they were never dour. They were upbeat, but yet they weren’t so cheery that it was uncomfortable. So they had a really good balance of enthusiasm and professionalism that helped me keep my life spirits up.

There was never a tone of pity with them. It was always professional and friendly and upbeat, and that helped me stay focused.

What kind of advice or encouragement do you have for people who are going through what you went through, or have a loved one who is?
For me it was to trust my doctors and my nurses, and follow what they said to the letter. I know a lot of people start researching on their own and trying to find different ways to do things, which I actually avoided doing because I felt like I had to put my complete trust in them until it didn’t work. And I never hit a point where it wasn’t working.

And I was diagnosed fairly early. I was Stage 2, so the odds were in my favor. That’s what worked for me – just focusing on what they said to do.

You’re also on the Lurie Cancer Center’s Patient and Family Advisory Board. What do you hope to accomplish in that role?
For me it’s repaying what was given to me, what the doctors did to make me feel safe and confident during the process, and the fact that I’m still here, seven years later, and have a good quality of life.

Obviously you pay your doctors’ bills. But what can I do to pay it back to whoever is involved, or whoever is coming up behind me who may be diagnosed? The board gives that opportunity to be involved in giving back through programs, program ideas and giving feedback on events.

What is your favorite part of the walk? What do you most look forward to?
It’s just seeing people and families and friends together. It’s a wonderful experience to see somebody walking for the first time. They’re a little bit apprehensive, coming up and getting a t-shirt, not knowing what to expect. Then you can see families that you have a sense have done this before. So for me it’s people watching in a nutshell – seeing all the interactions of the survivors and their families and friends.

To learn more and register for the Lurie Cancer Center's 19th Annual Cancer Survivors’ Celebration and Walk on Sunday, June 3 visit cancer.northwestern.edu. No pledges are required.

Content provided by Northwestern University’s Science in Society e-magazine, connecting science to you. Read other articles, find local events, or check out our blog at scienceinsociety.northwestern.edu.

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