There's a Whole New Way of Killing Cancer
There is not one chance in a thousand that the events of this story could actually have happened. But they did, and the result is that a young woman who was terminal now has a fighting chance to live, and that her case will validate an entirely new way to treat cancer. Meet Stephanie Lee.
By Tom Junod and Mark Warren
ON May 7 of this year, I received a Facebook message from a woman named Stephanie Lee:
Hey Mark, I found that I have colon cancer today. I go for surgery Thursday morning. Please keep me in your prayers.
At the time, Stephanie was thirty-six and lived on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, in the town of Ocean Springs. I had met her eight years before, when I worked with Tom Junod on a story for Esquire ("Mississippi Goddamn," November 2005) about how Hurricane Katrina had affected military families already enduring the calamities of the war in Iraqthe families whose suffering had been doubled by the wind and the rain and the floods. Junod and I met Stephanie at her grandmother's house in Lucedale, Mississippi, where she told her story. She was a small woman who worked as a pipe fitter at the Northrop Grumman shipyard, a fine-boned beauty with an intimidating reserve of tensile strength, a single mother whose face settled easily into stoicism and whose eyes lit up with challenge and dare. She'd spent most of her life bedeviled by inconstant men until she met Terrance Lee where she worked. He was a welder. He was younger than Stephanie, and quiet, but she thought he was like her in that he had a plan for making something of himself. Like her, he'd joined the Mississippi National Guard. They married and she e-mailed with him every night after he was called to Iraq in January 2005. She was seven months pregnant when his Humvee went over an IED. She was nine months pregnant when Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, and she got in her truck with her husband's .45 and drove nearly eight hours on snarled roads to Shreveport to find a generator so that her babyTerrance's babywouldn't have to be born in darkness. Three days later, she gave birth to Marchelle, who never stopped reminding Stephanie both of her life with Terrance and of the impossibility of life without him.
A few years after her story ran in the magazine, I was surprised to receive a Facebook message from Stephanie that read, Remember me? Over a couple years we swapped the casual and fitful messages typical of Facebook. Then came her message of May 7.
A week later came another. I am well. The surgery went great, just waiting for the biopsy to find out if the cancer spread to my lymphoid. I'm sore and tired and feel so helpless right now, but I know it will get better.
A week after that: I have to have chemo, Mark. Keep me in your prayers.
Stephanie was not alone. She had her seventeen-year-old daughter, Kamri, a student at the local high school, and she had Marchelle. She had friends and an aunt with whom she was close. Thanks to Terrance, she also had health insurance. Thanks to Terrance, she was able to walk into the Keesler Air Force Base Medical Center in Biloxi and receive treatment for a cost no greater than the utterance of a number. It was the last four digits of Terrance's Social Security number, and now it was her number, for her war. She had stage-three colon cancer. Following the surgery to remove the tumor from her colon, her oncologist wanted to treat her as aggressively as possiblesix months of a combination of toxic chemicals known as FOLFOX6, administered every two weeks through a port installed between her left breast and her collarbone. The port was implanted under her skin on June 10, a week before her chemotherapy was set to start. It was supposed to be minor surgery, but two days later Stephanie woke up in such agony that there was fear that perhaps the surgeon who had installed the port had accidentally perforated her chest wall. He hadn't, but the news was even worse. She went to Keesler for a CT scan, and after she was done, she was waiting in the ER and an attending physician walked into the room. She said, "You know it's in your liver, right?"
Just like that.
The doctor held her, and together they wept. But a part of her just wanted someoneher own doctorto tell her what it meant, so she would know what she had to do. The next Monday, June 17, her oncologist, Major Owen Roberts, entered the treatment room where she was waiting to begin her chemotherapy. Kneeling beside her, he apologized for the way she found out that her cancer had metastasized. He assumed, he said, that the surgeon, having been the first to review the CT scan, had told her.
"Am I gonna die?" Stephanie asked.
"I can't answer that," Dr. Roberts said. He then proceeded to tell Stephanie that she no longer had stage-three colon cancer. She had stage four. She might have twenty-eight months to live if she could tolerate the chemotherapy, six months if she couldn't. She was terminal.
So she was alone, after all.
Mark, the cancer has spread to my liver.
I had begun talking with Stephanie regularly, and I was on the phone with her the day she was told she was going to die. I could hear her smacking her palm on the countertop in her kitchen in Mississippi. "I will go back to school, I will finish my degree in supply-chain management," she said, her voice raised and defiant. "I will get a job and become a success in my professionI am good, Mark!I will remarry, I will see my girls grow to become women, I will be a grandmother to my grandbabies!"
And then she came to tears. "It's not fair! Marchelle can't lose both parents before she's ten. It's not fair! My God!"