Cancer Survivors Who Inspire Us

June 4 is National Cancer Survivors Day. To honor this occasion, we’re sharing the stories of six survivors who inspire us.

Some are public figures who are famous the world over. Others are people we had the privilege to treat here at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. To us, every survivor represents a miracle. Not a miracle of medicine or technology, but a miracle of strength, grace and heart.

Image: A detail from Vase, Bottle and Fruit, a 1906 oil on canvas painting by Henri Matisse. (Public domain/State Hermitage Museum)Cancer is not a single disease. It’s a vast category of illness that contains thousands of individual conditions, with a bewildering range of symptoms, affecting millions of people around the globe. Every single one of them has a story to tell. Some have stories of recovery, thanks to breakthroughs in cancer treatment such as targeted therapy or cell therapy. Some have stories of endurance through painful operations or rounds of chemo. And some have stories of resilience and finding new ways to live their lives.

Henri Matisse

Oil painting depicts Henri Matisse looking at the viewer. He has short hair, a full beard, and a sidelong glance.
Cancer surgery made it hard for Henri Matisse to paint. So he switched to a new art form. This painting is Matisse’s Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt. (Public domain/Statens Museum for Kunst)

In 1941, when he was 71 years old, French artist Henri Matisse was diagnosed with cancer in the duodenum, a part of the intestine. He was already a world-renowned painter and sculptor. Doctors performed a risky surgery that saved his life, but also nearly cost him his life. Afterwards he could barely walk. In the months that followed, he suffered from intense fatigue. He didn’t have the strength to paint. He wore pajamas all day long.

But he refused to give up on his art. Instead, he adapted. Using paper and scissors, he worked obsessively on a new form he called the “cut-out” – a type of collage.

“My terrible operation has completely rejuvenated and made a philosopher of me,” he wrote. “I had so completely prepared for my exit from life that it seems to me that I am in a second life.”

That second life lasted for another 13 years. Some of his best-known and most critically acclaimed works are from this period. His book Jazz, which featured dozens of cut-outs, was an instant success. As he grew stronger and more confident in the new cut-out technique, Matisse reimagined its dimensions, creating monumental works of art that filled entire walls.

“An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of success,” he wrote.

Matisse refused to be defined by his limits. His final work was the design of a stained-glass window for a country church.

For more, see How Henri Matisse (and I) Got a Beautiful Body.

Henry Hernandez

A Starbucks barista offers a coffee drink next to a poster promoting Henry's Toy Drive
An act of kindness inspired survivor Henry Hernandez to launch a toy drive for kids at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

Henry Hernandez grew up in Woodburn, Oregon, playing soccer, skateboarding, and making art with his brother and sisters. When he was a sophomore in high school, he went in for a routine physical and got some shocking news: he had a tumor in his lung.

Henry spent the whole summer at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital getting chemotherapy: one week of chemo, followed by a week of rest. “It drains you,” he says. “You can’t do anything.”

One day, a nurse brought him a plush toy – a furry monkey to hug while he lay in bed. “I had this feeling of joy and warmth,” he remembers. “And it gave me hope.”

Henry made a complete recovery, but he never forgot that moment. The next spring, he worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to perform a radical act of payback. He went to Clackamas Town Center, rounded up hundreds of plush toys, and brought them over to the kids on the cancer ward at Doernbecher. “It was beautiful to see those kids with those toys,” he says.

But Henry wasn’t done. After high school, he got a job as a barista at Starbucks, and challenged the company to sponsor a toy drive. Every Starbucks in Oregon took part in Henry’s Toy Drive (as it was dubbed). The response was overwhelming – customers donated thousands of toys. The kids at Doernbecher could hardly believe their eyes. Neither could Henry. “Oh man, I broke down,” he says. “It was so amazing for the kids. It was heartwarming to see how much people care.”

Henry is now a carpenter and hopes to start his own business one day. “The journey I went through was hard,” he says. “It’s made me grateful for what I have. I thank God for the chance to give back. These kids are strong. I want to help their families find the strength they need to push through. Maybe my story can inspire them to hang in there.”

Find out more about Henry’s story at Woodburn teen launches state-wide Starbucks toy drive.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits confidently in robe and jabot.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued some of her most influential opinions after being diagnosed with colon cancer.

In 1999, six years after she was appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer. With the help of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, she made a full recovery. In fact, she didn’t miss a day of work. After her surgery, she began lifting weights with a personal trainer who helped her stay fit and get stronger. She did regular exercise and even squeezed in 20 pushups on her 80th birthday.

During the 21 years between her first diagnosis and her death, Justice Ginsburg wrote many of her most important and influential opinions. Her defiant dissent in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear inspired the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which dismantled arcane restrictions that made it almost impossible for employees to sue companies for equal pay. “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” she wrote. The Ledbetter Act made it easier for women to sue companies if they earned less than men for doing substantially similar work.

She dissented again in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, when the court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states and counties with a history of discrimination to seek federal oversight before they changed their voting rules. She argued that the provision had been highly effective. Getting rid of it, she wrote, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.”

Her colleague Justice Antonin Scalia was in awe of Ginsburg’s style of questioning. “She will take a lawyer who is making a ridiculous argument and just shake him like a dog with a bone,” he said.

She was named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Forbes magazine’s 100 most powerful women, and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Justice Ginsburg died from cancer (this time of the pancreas) in 2020. Find out more about her life at The Notorious RBG.

Derek Fadness

A young man is pictured against a stone wall.
The cancer wouldn’t quit. But nor would Derek Fadness. After three surgeries, he tried a new treatment, with extraordinary results.

Derek Fadness had one surgery after another, but his cancer kept coming back. Then his doctors at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute told him about an experimental drug combination. It had never been tried for his condition. In fact, he would only be the second person in the whole country to get it. There were no guarantees. Would he give it a try?

Fadness was an athletic 29-year-old contractor and punk rocker who woke up one morning in 2019 and noticed a tiny lump in his jaw. It was osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer that grows fast and inflicts agonizing pain.

Doctors couldn’t save his left jawbone – the cancer was already too advanced. So they took a bone from his leg and sculpted it into a new jawbone. Unfortunately, the lump came back. The doctors took his new jaw out and gave him another one. The lump came back again — and spread to his lung.

But this time, there was a new option: SARC038, a clinical trial to test a new drug combination. Fadness decided to give it a shot. At first the drugs caused painful side effects. He fought through it. He endured another jaw surgery – this time using a bone from his shoulder blade. He had another surgery to remove the cancer in his lung. Recovered from that.

In October 2022 he got the good news. The scans showed no cancer cells anywhere. He had had a phenomenal response. He was a survivor.

“Cancer teaches you to slow down and smell the roses,” he says. “Not to rush through everything. You work with what you’ve got and you enjoy what you have through the time that it’s here. Because everything can change in a matter of seconds.”

Read more about his story at The Cancer Kept Coming Back.

Judy Orem

A woman smiles. She is wearing glasses and a dark shirt.
Judy Orem’s leukemia got worse and worse. Then she heard about a new treatment developed by researchers at OHSU.

Judy Orem was out of options. She had taken all the cancer drugs that were available for her chronic myeloid leukemia, but they weren’t working any more. She lost weight. She lost her job. She had chemo brain. She was sick and tired. Her doctor gave her six months to live. “The drugs had failed me,” she says.

She and her husband Frank took their kids on a memory trip to New Zealand. She told him she wanted her ashes to be scattered on Mount Hood.

But she had one chance left: a new drug being developed at OHSU by Dr. Brian Druker. A friend of hers heard about it on the radio. It was still in the experimental phase. She came to see Dr. Druker at OHSU and agreed to give it a shot. The drug was imatinib (now better known as Gleevec) and she was just the ninth patient who had ever received it.

Orem staged a phenomenal recovery. “It was amazing,” she says. “I felt better, I had my energy.” Her blood tests looked better and better. But because it was a brand new drug, no one knew if it would last.

Today, more than two decades later, Orem is still in full recovery. She and her husband raised their children, welcomed grandchildren into the world, and watched them grow up. “I’ve been surrounded by my family and their love through all of this,” she says. “In the good times and the bad times.”

Listen to Orem tell her story to a Knight School audience.

Brenna Lindsley

A woman stands in the Scottish highlands.
Breast cancer turned Brenna Lindsley’s life upside down. She found a way to roll with it.

Brenna Lindsley was 38 years old when she got the news. The lump in her breast was cancer – and it was growing fast.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” she says.

Overwhelmed, she called the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to make her first appointment and broke down in tears.

On the other end of the line was a patient access service coordinator named Dave, who calmed her down, set up the appointments, and explained the process.

Surgeons at the Knight removed the tumor, along with five lymph nodes. Then she got radiation therapy to zap any cancer cells that might remain.

“With my cancer diagnosis, I felt alone in a dark forest with monsters all around. I was so very terrified, I didn’t know what to do or where to go,” she says. “If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you know the fear I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it is incomprehensible how alone you feel with your diagnosis and how frightened you are in the dark hours. So to have the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute in this dark forest with you, guiding you, lighting the way, encouraging you, crying with you, providing hugs… it makes all the difference in the world.”

The experience had a profound impact on Lindsley. She quit her job in the cosmetics department at Nordstrom’s and got a job at the Knight Cancer Institute. She is now a scheduler for the OHSU Breast Center, where she helps patients with breast cancer.

“Talking to cancer patients is very emotional,” she says. “When I hear their voices shake like mine did… it reminds me of what Dave did for me. I offer them calm, efficient empathy. ‘This is what we’re doing. This is why we’re doing it. Here’s your next appointment.’ It’s like a flight attendant being calm during a turbulent flight. It’s comforting for patients to understand the process. And I share that trust in the amazing doctors we have and the care we provide.”

Surviving cancer has given her a sense of perspective. She recently taught her young nephew a new phrase to use when things go haywire: “Roll with it.”

Read Lindsley’s story I am alive. I am strong.

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