Cancer survivor shares story of HOPE

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Helen Allen of Relay For Life of Cullman County stands with Bettye and Sam Janis. Bettye Janis spoke to those attending the 2016 Kickoff Celebration.

Bettye Janis shared a message of hope during the Kickoff Celebration for Relay For Life of Cullman County. Janis, of Decatur, is a more than 10-year survivor of esophageal cancer and is a Hero of Hope speaker for the American Cancer Society.

In a strong voice, Janis shared her story of survival and hope to those gathered to officially kick off the fundraising year for Relay For Life of Cullman County, which benefits the American Cancer Society.

“I want to share with you how your money that you donate, that you raise through your efforts with Relay, benefits so many people who utilize the services of the American Cancer Society, in particular how they benefitted me and my family,” Janis said.

She asked those attending the meeting to keep the word hope in mind as she spoke about her journey with cancer, which began in June 2005 when she told her doctor she was having trouble swallowing.  Having a history of acid reflux, they didn’t think it was anything to worry about, but tests were ordered and the doctor suggested she eat slower and chew more thoroughly.

“My momma always told me that, but I didn’t think a doctor would be giving that type of instruction, but he did,” Janis said.

The test, an endoscope, revealed Janis had a bigger problem. She had esophageal cancer, which came as a surprise. “Usually it’s smoking, drinking men who get cancer of the esophagus,” she said. “The culprit for me though, was acid reflux and a genetic history of esophageal and stomach issues in my family.”

After the diagnosis, she and her husband Sam went to their church, where they prayed and asked God to be with them as they started their journey. “We gave it all to God, with our main prayer being that through the whole experience, that we would glorify God in the situation,” Janis said. “We prayed for a brightly lit path to know where we could get the best help for my diagnosis. We talked with many people, researched the American Cancer Society website, called the 1-800 number that the American Cancer Society has, and through those sources of information from the American Cancer Society, I learned that UAB was conducting one of the few studies for esophageal cancer.”

Janis said she felt lucky to be located as close as she was to a hospital conducting research into her specific type of cancer, which accounts for just 1 out of every 100 cancer diagnoses and doesn’t necessarily have as much precedence in research circles as more prevalent types of cancer. Another statistic was more worrisome, however, in that only 10 percent of esophageal cancer patients survive five years after diagnosis. “Do you remember when I told you I was diagnose? I was diagnosed in 2005 and this is 2016,” she said. “Praise God.”

During her treatments, Janis received 12 different kinds of chemotherapy, 30 radiation treatments and then surgery to remove her esophagus and a portion of her stomach. “Through all the treatments and surgery we kept hope in our minds and in our hearts,” she said.

Janis said they were directed to the Bible verses of Psalm 91 and John 11:4, which provided them with more hope. “John 11:4 said, this disease is not a new death, but to bring glory to God and his son Jesus Christ,” she said. “No wonder we had hope.”

Janis shared what HOPE came to mean to her through her journey with cancer, using each letter of the word to outline how she was encouraged as she fought cancer.

H, she said, stood for the Help she received through the ACS website and hotline, the Look Good Feel Better program, the chemo caps and wigs, the clinical study and help provided to her and her family.

O, she said, stood for the Opportunity she had to stay for free at Hope Lodge in Birmingham while she received treatments. “It was a gift of peace to me, Sam and our girls,” Janis said. There she met other patients going through treatments and “shared war stories” and received support and encouragement.

Another opportunity was to participate in Relay For Life as a survivor, knowing the money that’s raised at Relay goes to help others, she said. “I cannot tell you what joy I still have in being in that survivor lap. It is so special to be able to put on that purple shirt that says Survivor across the back and physically be able to walk around the track. You just don’t know how special that is. You all provide us that opportunity to say hey, we survived. It’s such a gift, and I just thank you so much.”

P, she said, is for the People and the Prayers that gave her hope, the people at the American Cancer Society who provide the resources and research, the people who give their time and energy to help people through the Relay For Life meetings and event.  “I thank you, because you give us hope when you do this,” she said.

E is for encouragement, Janis said. “Encouragement for the help which these opportunities that I’ve mentioned and the people and the prayers give is such a gift of encouragement,” she said. “It’s also for encouraging you or someone you know who may be having similar symptoms to mine: acid reflux, difficulty swallowing, to get an endoscope…so the doctor is monitoring (the condition). Be sure that you’re having yourself watched, because I had not and I’m sorry because it made me pay a price.”

Early detection, Janis added, is extremely important. She said her sister was diagnosed a year after she was but only lived six months because she had put off going to the doctor.

“I thank God for the American Cancer Society and all of those who make those services available,” Janis said. “I can never thank God enough for the gift of life, where so many have not survived this horrible disease.”

As the volunteers begin the bulk of their fundraising efforts, Janis encouraged them to look at the efforts not as hard work or time consuming, but to instead look at their efforts as giving hope. “You are giving hope to so many,” she said. “Possibly your friends and family will need the hope that you’re able to offer them through your involvement with Relay. You are giving them, as you have me, another birthday, another celebration. So let the celebration begin.”

Relay For Life of Cullman County will be held Friday, May 6, at the Cullman County Fairgrounds. The next Team Spirit meeting is Feb. 4, at 5:30 p.m., at First Baptist Church of Cullman Fellowship Hall. Registration for the event is underway at www.relayforlife.org/cullmanal. For more information, contact Helen Allen at 256-709-4019.

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