Cancer patients bond on trips for treatment

Cancer brought them together, but more than that is keeping them friends.

There are six of them. They range in age from 33 to 91. They are widows, mothers, husbands and wives.

They got to know each other during daily trips from Winfield to Wichita for radiation therapy for breast cancer, lung cancer, gallbladder cancer and lymphoma.

Their story begins with a piece of equipment called a linear accelerator.

Common bonds

Since 2001, Via Christi Health has collaborated with William Newton Hospital in Winfield and the Cancer Center of Kansas to offer treatment to Cowley County patients, including radiation.

The Winfield Cancer Center eliminates the need for patients to drive to Wichita for radiation, which is a five-times-a-week commitment for up to eight weeks.

In late September, the linear accelerator — equipment used in radiation therapy — needed to be upgraded, putting it out of business for eight to 10 weeks.

That meant patients would have to go to Wichita for treatment.

Via Christi officials worked with the Cowley County Council on Aging to provide a shuttle to bring six patients who were scheduled for treatment through mid-December to Wichita.

Shannon Seaton, a 33-year-old mother of three who was diagnosed in March with inflammatory breast cancer, was one of the six.

"It was extremely hard," Seaton said of her diagnosis. "I remember thinking, 'I just had a baby, I'm nursing. I never smoked, never drank.' It just seemed so surreal."

After chemotherapy and surgery, it was time for radiation.

She remembers stepping into the van, looking around at the other patients and thinking, "Hmmm, this is interesting. I don't know how our personalities are going to mesh."

The other patients were much older, the oldest nearly three times her age.

Everyone was pretty quiet that first trip. Each was in different stages of their treatment.

The second ride, they started talking about what to expect, sharing tips on how to cope with the burns that radiation often brings.

"It completely caught my interest that they're going through something that I'm going to go through," Seaton said.

While Seaton had a good support system, it was different talking to people who could truly relate to what she was experiencing.

"I remember at the beginning of it I felt so lonely because I felt like no one knew what I was going through," she said. But because of the daily trips to Wichita, "I felt like I wasn't alone. It made me realize that when you're going through this, you'll find support in different ways."

Pretty soon, the six were talking about more than just cancer.

They talked about their marriages, children, hobbies, losses.

One of the other women was Jan Sanderholm, whose granddaughter, Jodi Sanderholm, was stalked, abducted, raped and strangled in 2007.

Seaton's husband is a newspaper publisher in Arkansas City, and the Sanderholm family had called at some point to complain about coverage of Jodi's death. Seaton was worried what Sanderholm would think about her being the editor's wife.

"But we became one of the closest in the group, and she's 77," Seaton said.

The entire group, she said, "just kind of became like parents to me. We became closer and closer.

"I'm also a Christian, and I was able to relate to people that way. We would celebrate each time people were done."

Seaton had 30 days of radiation over seven weeks, finishing Nov. 22. She is looking forward to a get-together Jan. 4 that Via Christi has put together for the patients.

"The people I met, I will never forget them," Seaton said. "Cancer was the common denominator, but I can't believe that I ended up getting such close relationships with these people who in the beginning I had nothing in common with."

Becoming friends

The others feel the same.

Sanderholm's journey with cancer began when she had a gallbladder attack May 28.

After doctors removed her gallbladder, they found she had cancer. She then had surgery to remove pieces of her liver that were next to gallbladder as well as some lymph nodes.

She had eight sessions of chemotherapy. She had 30 days of radiation, finishing the Monday after Thanksgiving.

"My first day I was scared to death," Sanderholm said. "I had visions of severe burns, diarrhea and vomiting. But I didn't have any symptoms."

It helped, she said, "that we were all doing it together."

"We had so much fun," Sanderholm said of the van rides. "Those of us who rode that van were very compatible and supportive of each other. It was like a big hug every day when you got in the van."

Bob Ketterman learned June 21 that he had lung cancer. The 61-year-old had chemotherapy and 33 days of radiation in Wichita. He still is taking 10 more treatments in Winfield and will finish Wednesday.

"It was kind of unusual the way we bonded, for complete strangers to bond like that," the retiree said.

Norman Ransford, 67, also is struggling with lung cancer. The Arkansas City resident was diagnosed in July.

Doctors couldn't operate because of the location of his tumor. He started radiation and chemotherapy at the same time. His finished 37 radiation treatments the first of November and has one more round of chemotherapy.

Ransford gave Seaton tips to deal with radiation such as using Neosporin Plus Pain Relief on her skin.

"It just burns you something fierce," Ransford said of radiation.

Despite their age differences, he said, "We just had a real good time visiting with each other."

Doctors diagnosed Winfield resident Phyllis Alquest, 71, with breast cancer in April. She had surgery in late May and began chemotherapy in June.

She started radiation at the beginning of November and went through six weeks of five-day-a-week treatments.

The van rides to Wichita were surprisingly enjoyable, she said.

"We became friends," she said. "The more you rode with them each day, you found out that they're just ordinary people going through the same thing that you are."

Alquest finished radiation Dec. 17.

"Thank goodness," she said. "I'm glad it's over."

Alquest can't make it to the reunion because she and her husband are hitting the road in their RV.

"It's on to other things," she said.

But Mabel Fowler, 91, of Winfield, plans to be there.

Fowler is in her second fight against cancer. This time, she has a tumor behind her eye. She had 18 days of radiation.

Fowler joked that with strangers traveling together, "we could have had some obnoxious men, and we could have had obnoxious women."

But everyone got along, she said.

"The camaraderie was just special," she said. "We talked about everything. It was just a pleasant time. And our driver, she was excellent."

Tracie Alcorn was a part-time staffer for the senior center who went full-time for two months to drive the group to Wichita.

"It was actually uplifting. You learn that everyone has their own story, and I loved listening to them," Alcorn told Via Christi's Roz Hutchinson, communication and public relations director. "I was sad to see everybody go, but I was glad they were completing this part of their treatment."

Ransford said he won't forget his new friends.

"We talked about the spiritual end of it and how we were expecting the good Lord to help us out,'' he said. "Doctors do the best they can, but you need to have some help beyond that.

"I'd go home every night and pray for the other ones."