Meeting the Faces of Cancer:
In 1992, I was the Features Editor at the Newport News, a new community paper, in Newport Beach, California. One weekend I took notepad and camera and went to cover a
cancer fair being sponsored by the local American Cancer Society. It featured a 5K
race and dozens of booths. I thought it was going to be a routine assignment, where I would go and get the basic information, take a few pictures and then come back to file the story.
A Story from 1992
However I was so touched by the people and what I saw that I came back and asked if I
could file, in addition to the actual story about the Fair, what is called in the business a "reporter's notebook," a first-hand account. The editor agreed. This is what appeared. Note that there is no mention of prostate cancer. I guess I wasn't ready to find it. Eight years later, however, it found me.
Survivors put human face on the horrors of cancer
By Robert Vaughn Young
I remember when I first saw her.
It was at the finish of the 5K race to benefit the American Cancer Society. She came across the line with a whoop.
"Cancer survivor!" she shouted, fists held proudly in the air.
It took her yell to mark her status because she didn't have the distinctive fluorescent pink caps that most survivors were wearing today.
The announcer on the back of the truck echoed her call across the PA system as I moved off quickly to find the first woman cancer survivor to finish the race. Her momentum had carried her well past the finish line and I didn't want to lose her in the growing crowd.
I already knew where to find the young man [Jeff Sanders] who was the first male cancer survivor to cross the line. Now I had to get a picture of the two of them.
When I caught up with her and told her that she was the first female survivor to finish, she was both proud and surprised.
"Hey, this is the first race I've ever entered," she panted. "I don't do races. All I do is aerobics five days a week. Not bad!"
She said her name was Sher Lyckman, answer my question with a handshake. I was to learn that she was 40, from Costa Mesa and was a broker with PHD Insurance Co. in Garden Grove.
As she walked along to cool off, I opened my notebook and began to ask questions: If you don't race regularly, how did you do so well?
As she responded, her philosophy began to unfold. It was so captivating that it was difficult to write.
"It's all in attitude," she said with a wide grin. "It has to do with a feeling of self and of life. The operative word here is 'survive.' Live life to the fullest."
Sher had survived breast cancer. It was detected in April, 1990, during her second mammogram. She was 38. Self-examination had found nothing because it was a type of cancer that does not form lumps.
"It was an intraductal cancer," she said. "By the time it would have shown as a lump, I would have been dead."
When her breast was removed, she had to face some difficult changes.
"That's not easy for any woman," she said as she began to catch her breath. "It plays havoc with your sense of your sexuality."
Despite the severity of her remarks, her eyes still sparkled. Her face still beamed.
Sher said she chose reconstructive surgery and began to graphically describe the process she went through, physically and emotionally, her remarks slamming into my stomach. Except for one close friend that was suddenly lost to cancer two years ago, I had kept the disease at bay. Now I was talking to a woman who could laugh at the challenge of reestablishing her confidence as a woman.
The entire treatment was a success, she said, and she had a new life. She gets regular blood and physical exams as well as a mammogram and continues to score 100 percent.
She put her hand on my arm.
"Tell everyone there is life after cancer," she said with amazing enthusiasm, "and its wonderful. It gives you a new appreciation of the value of life."
We found the young man who had finished - as survivor of leukemia - and I took the picture as they doffed their pink caps in a salute. I gave them my card and said I had to keep moving.
Behind one of them was a small, attractive silver-haired lady. She wore a pink cap.
Her name was Jan Thielbar and she was the founder of the Thielbar Centre for Personal Enhancement in Irvine. It turned out that, like Sher, she had suffered breast cancer. Like Sher, her eyes magically sparkled.
Jan was a medical artist with a strong background in fine art, makeup and special effects. She had turned her talent to the creation of breast prostheses that women could use as an alternative to implants.
She opened a binder with color photographs that are never forgotten: it was a close-up of an older, heavy-set woman with a large scar across the left side of her chest where a breast had been. Another photograph: no scar. The woman looked normal. It could have been a "before" photograph except that it was not. She was wearing a breast prosthesis.
As Jan explained how the artificial breast is molded, built and attached with special adhesives, I worked to overcome my discomfort and embarrassment. Jan, meanwhile, was vibrant and smiling. I also realized the plight of her product: the photographs told the tale but no publication - except perhaps a woman's magazine - would publish them.
I didn't press Jan for her personal story. I couldn't handle another one.
She gave me some literature and I moved on. I had to visit other booths and take more pictures.
When an announcement from the stage alerted everyone that some awards were to be given, I moved with the bulk of the crowd to watch.
Part of the presentation was the selection of the event's equivalent of their kind and queen: Sir Vivor, Lady Vivor and Price and Princess Vivor. Robert Harrell, a well-dressed knight from Medieval Times, was on hand to make it official.
The names, drawn at random from a list of the cancer survivors, were called. As Robert knighted first the man and then the woman, I was in front of the stage with several others to get a picture of the occasion.
And then Heather Steven of Huntington Beach was called as Princess Vivor.
I don't know how old she was. Perhaps six. I forgot to ask. She was so small she could have curled up on my chest. When she took off her pink cap to accept the headdress of a princess, my stomach fell. She had lost much of her hair, probably to chemotherapy. And yet she smiled. I had to fight back the tears. It was all so unfair.
"And I dub thee..."
Robert's booming voice brought me back to my assignment. I had to quickly focus through wet eyes and snap the photo.
As I stepped back into the crowd, an arm touched mine.
It was Sher. Since she works in Garden Grove, she wanted to know how she would find out if her picture was in the paper. I reminded her that I had given her my card and she could call me Thursday and ask. Otherwise, I said, just call the Newport News if you lose the card or forget my name.
She squeezed my arm and looked at me with those eyes that sparkled with life.
"I won't forget you if you won't forget me," she said with a wide smile.
I won't, Sher.
And I won't forget a tiny princess.
And neither should anyone else.
That's why I wrote this.
Robert Vaughn Young
June 25, 1992