Stories from Survivors
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Patricia Stevens has traveled through 47 states and 63 countries, covering five continents in her lifetime – and she isn’t done yet.
Her treasure chest of memories will continue to grow, despite pleural mesothelioma cancer. The final three states and the last two continents are still on the horizon. She can hear them beckoning.
“I guess you could call it a late-in-life goal of mine, to see it all,” Stevens said. “With travel you experience things, you learn things, that never can be taken away.”
Stevens, 76, is a mesothelioma survivor and lifelong native of Huntsville, Alabama, whose love of travel was sidetracked in 2021 by a diagnosis of this cancer with no cure.
Her treatment began in March 2021 with chemotherapy, followed by aggressive pleurectomy and decortication surgery in August. She rebounded quicker than doctors expected.
Stevens has reactivated a lifestyle that includes a road map of the world. She just doesn’t sit still very well.
“I know that this cancer, or some other cancer, will come back at some point and raise its ugly head. That’s inevitable,” Stevens said. “But I have nothing to complain about. I’ve been lucky, fortunate. And I’m thankful. I feel good now.”
Alaska, Oregon and North Dakota are on the calendar for the coming months. They will complete her wish list of visiting all 50 states. Australia and Antarctica – the remaining two continents – are not far behind.
“I learned a long time ago, you can lose everything – your home, your money, your health – but that travel experience, it never goes away,” she said. “You always have it. It’s why I love it.”
A Family’s Genetic Predisposition to Cancer
Although pleural mesothelioma cancer is rare, Stevens’ diagnosis in 2021 was not a total surprise despite no obvious exposure to asbestos, mesothelioma’s most common cause.
Her mother died of mesothelioma almost 30 years ago in Huntsville. A first cousin died of mesothelioma a decade later.
Stevens fought off a rare type of liver cancer in 2010. Her oldest daughter died in 2021 from leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, only days after Stevens’ mesothelioma surgery.
All have been traced to the inherited mutation of the BAP1 gene, giving them a genetic predisposition to these rare cancers. Research has shown that the BAP1 mutation is found in an estimated 70% of mesothelioma patients.
The BAP1 gene serves as a tumor blocker for most. The mutation of BAP1 makes cancer more likely to take hold.
Knowing she had the mutation, though, led to regular testing and an earlier-than-normal diagnosis of mesothelioma for Stevens, making treatment more effective and potentially extending her survival.
Finding the Right Mesothelioma Specialist
Stevens also was fortunate to find thoracic surgeon Dr. Marcelo DaSilva, a mesothelioma specialist and medical director at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute in Orlando.
DaSilva had been trained by legendary surgeon Dr. David Sugarbaker at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
DaSilva’s expertise was key to Stevens’ physical – and mental – well-being.
“I knew immediately I had come to the right place for treatment. He came into the exam room the first time, and there was just this presence about him,” she said. “You knew he was going to take care of this. It almost felt like it was God’s will, coming to see Dr. DaSilva. He gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right.”
Returning to a Daily Routine
Stevens’ post-surgery hospital recovery was quicker than normal. Once back in Huntsville, she was attending Bible study at church by September and playing cards again with friends in October. She was back to her exercise routine by November.
In December, she made the eight-hour drive alone from her home in Huntsville to the beach in Destin, Florida. In January, she and her sister attended live theater shows in New York City.
“I’m in a good place [mentally] right now,” Stevens said. “I know the cancer will come back, but I don’t allow myself to be depressed. You just can’t have one of those ‘poor me’ attitudes. I’m fortunate to have the resources to take care of things.”
Stevens spent 20 years running her wholesale florist company in Huntsville before retiring. Her husband, who died 15 years ago, had a Chevron distributorship.
Survivor’s Family Comes First
When Stevens started chemotherapy, her older daughter with a more advanced stage of cancer was already being treated in New York City. When her daughter came to AdventHealth for end-of-life palliative care, it allows them to spend precious time together.
Stevens postponed her own surgery twice to stay active in her daughter’s life as she declined.
“Despite being a horrible year with my diagnosis, and my daughter’s death, I learned a lot. There were some great moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” she said. “Her time was short, but they took beautiful care of my daughter. It’s something I’ll always remember.”
Stevens is intent on helping others by sharing her story about the genetic predisposition, hoping it may give other mesothelioma patients a better chance of a longer survival.
“You’re not on this Earth by yourself. Embrace your family. Belonging is the No. 1 thing in life. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “If you don’t have family, reach out to others. Knock on your neighbor’s door. Go to church, get involved. Try not to feel sorry for yourself.”
Staying Positive After a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Stevens communicates regularly with her five grandchildren, who joined her on trips before her latest diagnosis. She hopes to pass on the love and benefits of travel. They are likely to accompany her again when travel resumes.
She still looks for fun things to do, even when she isn’t feeling well. While in Orlando for a checkup she went to nearby Wildflower Farms to watch baby goat yoga. Stevens dropped to her knees and played with the animals. It made her feel young again.
“I’ve been so fortunate,” she said. “I’ve made a few mistakes along the way, went through some difficult times, but everyone has bad days. I’m sure I’ll have some rough ones ahead of me. You just have to remember the good ones.”
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