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She grasps life and holds on tight

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The Florida Coalition for Cancer Survivorship's first conference is today and Sunday. Actor/comedian Jayne Meadows will be the guest speaker 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Registration is $50. For information about the conference, also sponsored by various cancer hospitals throughout the state, call Diane Johnsen, at 972-8464. For information about support groups sponsored by the American Cancer Society, call 546-9822 in Pinellas or 254-3630 in Tampa.

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Barbara Foster is a survivor.

The 65-year-old St. Petersburg woman has bounced back from four major bouts with cancer. She and others with similar experiences will meet during the Florida Coalition for Cancer Survivorship's first conference today and Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Westshore in Tampa. Survivors will discuss topics including insurance coverage, nutrition, employment and laughter as the best medicine.

Mrs. Foster was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease more than 40 years ago.

At the time, few people survived the disease, which attacks the body's lymphatic system.

"You didn't dare tell anybody you had cancer" in the 1950s, Mrs. Foster said. And the patient was not told about the diagnosis; the family was.

"I guess I was sure I was going to die because my aunt was dying and did die" of Hodgkin's disease, she said.

She was treated at Ohio State University, one of only two centers in the United States treating Hodgkin's patients with experimental radiation. She lived in Pittsburgh then.

"It took me a couple of years to realize I wasn't going to die," Mrs. Foster said.

She began to work for airlines in customer service and for travel agencies and got married. She was cancer-free until 1972.

She began having intestinal problems, and her doctor thought she had a spastic colon. Her husband took her to the emergency room on New Year's Eve.

When she finally convinced doctors her troubles were not caused by drinking too much or the flu, the doctors felt a lump on her colon. After three weeks of tests, she had surgery to remove two-thirds of her colon.

In 1985, her husband's heart condition worsened. She had her breasts removed when a mammogram and biopsy indicated small tumors.

That was June 1986. Her husband died that November.

She sold her home and bought a condominium in St. Petersburg, eventually moving in with her 85-year-old mother.

A few years ago, after back surgery, Mrs. Foster learned she had lung cancer. A reformed smoker, she discovered that the surgery to remove two-thirds of her lung was the most painful of all.

She said that sometimes she warns her doctor: "You'd better take good care of me, because if I die, you'll be in trouble."

A sense of humor, faith in God and the friendship of a poodle named Bubbles have given Mrs. Foster her strength. She also keeps busy with volunteer work for the American Cancer Society, answering phones and setting up transportation for radiation and chemotherapy patients who are treated daily or weekly.

"I'm an old workhorse," she said. "I work whether I get anything for it or not. They (co-workers) told me when I retired I was a team player."

She encourages other survivors to join a support group. Although she once was skeptical about joining one, she goes to two groups now and feels guilty if she misses a meeting.

Surveys show that women with breast cancer survive longer when they attend a group, Mrs. Foster said.

Another woman once told her: "I found out you could go through what you went through and still be active."

Attitude makes a world of difference for people battling cancer, Mrs. Foster said. "If they let the cancer consume them, if all they talk about is the cancer, these are the people that don't survive."