LAURINBURG — The legion of local supporters behind Scotland County’s Relay for Life, which will hold its 19th annual event on Friday, is a testament to the reality of cancer as a life-altering, or in many cases life-ending, disease.
But more than 30 years after discovering that she had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Ruth Tremblay has learned that there is a life after diagnosis.
A school secretary at the time, Tremblay first detected a lump on her neck that a biopsy revealed to be cancerous Non-Hodgkins lymphoma originates in the lymphatic system, and in Tremblay’s case ultimately affected her arms, groin, and stomach.
But she regards herself as “one of the lucky ones.” Her first concern, she recalled ruefully, was that she might lose her hair.
She received treatments at Duke for a number of years before the Scotland Cancer Treatment Center opened, leaving her school at lunchtime to make the drive to Durham. Tremblay experienced few side effects with chemotherapy, but had a front-row seat to those who weren’t so lucky.
“It never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do; I was lucky that I didn’t get sick,” she said. “Sometimes I would feel embarrassed when I would go up to Duke … I would sit there waiting for them to call me and I felt bad that I was okay, when you would see people that were having trouble.”
She last received chemotherapy in 1998, and is now treated monthly with intravenous immunoglobulin to support her compromised lymphatic system.
“It helps build up my immune system, because if I get a cold or something like that it would take me a long time to get rid of it,” she said.
“Scotland Cancer Treatment Center, it’s wonderful, it’s like family. They’re perfect. I’ve known them forever because I was there before they were.”
Since Tremblay’s diagnosis in 1982, the medical world has learned a few things about lymphoma and other cancers, thanks in part to patients like her. At one point, she did try experimental interferon treatments. Although it did not work for her, interferon is now used in the treatment of melanoma and other forms of cancer.
“You have to have a good attitude; they say that’s some of the best medicine you can have,” Tremblay said.
Though Tremblay rarely spares a thought for cancer these days, she has not lived through it completely unscathed. She believes that deterioration in her vision was caused by some of her chemotherapy treatments, and the sense of discovering a malignant growth is one she will never forget.
“I really don’t think about it now unless things come up… if I think I feel something, I get a little nervous.”
Tremblay was the first person in her family to have cancer, and as a longtime survivor tries to support friends and acquaintances grappling with a new diagnosis. But no two patients’ experiences are alike.
“I always tell people that you can have three people who have been diagnosed with the exact same thing, but that doesn’t mean that everybody gets the same treatment,” she said. “It really is an individual thing, and what works for me maybe won’t work for someone else.”
Now 72, Tremblay retired from the school system in 2005. She volunteers at Helping Hand twice a week, as well as with her church’s food bank, and spends time with her family, which now includes five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Relay for Life will begin at 3 p.m. on Friday at Scotland High School’s Pate Stadium. Opening ceremonies will be held at 6 p.m.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.