Stories Behind the Ribbon

The accounts of a DHS graduate, current students and staff

By Jacoby Haley, Tessa Kipke, Evelyn Maxey & Heather Brouwer

For Nathaniel Burrell, the signs that led to the diagnoses of the cancer were nothing particularly out of the order at first.

“It all started with some trouble going to the bathroom,” Burrell said.

As this trouble progressed, he started to become more worried.

“It came to a point where – it sounds weird to say – nothing was coming out,” Burrell said.

These troubles led to a trip to the University of Michigan hospital. Later, he was later diagnosed with the cancer.

“It was all really surreal,” Burrell said. “You know, the effect on me wasn’t nearly as heavy as what it was on my family. It really took a while to settle in.”

Burrell, a 2017 Dexter High School graduate, was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, also known as ARMS. This type of cancer forms from cells that were originally intended for one’s skeletal muscles or the muscles that aid with voluntary movement. ARMS usually occurs in the muscles of the arms, legs, and torso.

It’s extremely rare: only .04% of cancer patients are diagnosed with ARMS. In addition to the tumors in Burrell’s body, the cancer has so far spread to his bones and lymph nodes.

Despite the devastating diagnosis, one neither he nor his family were expecting, Burrell is keeping upbeat.

“I just tried my best to keep with my life,” Burrell said. “I wasn’t going to let this change who I am.”

Even though his life took a major turn, Burrell said he wouldn’t let the cancer stop him from living life to the fullest or his outlook on life. Even though it may be harder given his current circumstances, but just like before, it’s one day at a time.

“Cancer really takes the energy from you,” Burrell said, “but I know I’m getting better. I can feel that I’m getting better.”

He tries to keep to his average day as it was before the cancer. Now, that being said, his chemotherapy treatments zap his energy, making him unable to go to school or work for the time being. What he is able to do, he does. On an average day he’ll watch some TV, play some video games, and take trips or go out with his family.

“I love still going out. It’s nice to go out with my family and kinda take a break from it all,” Burrell said. “I don’t want it to feel like I’m living some different life.”

When asked about his outlook on this whole ordeal, his answer was overwhelmingly positive.

“You know, I know I’ll beat this, but it’s just one day at a time right now,” Burrell said.

Gina Star

Cancer, whether we have firsthand experience with it or not, affects all of our lives, communities, and families. It may come as a surprise to some, but there are people close to all of us who have battled cancer. Just look at Gina Star, who you may know from the counseling office here at DHS and who celebrated her fifth anniversary of being cancer-free this October.

Star was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. She underwent a double mastectomy on October 22 of the same year.

“There are many different treatment plans out there, and theories about treatment, and I’ll just tell you it’s different for everybody,” Star said. “I decided I wanted to be very aggressive with my treatment, and that’s not always what everyone chooses.”

Her decision was prompted by a family history of cancer and the results of genetic testing, which showed that a double mastectomy would most effectively combat Star’s cancer.

Star’s case also emphasizes the importance of awareness and vigilance when it comes to cancer. The illness is so prevalent in Star’s family that her younger cousin was also diagnosed with breast cancer–on the same day, no less. They had similar surgeries and went through their treatment together, despite living in different states. 

Now, Star is looking to the future. In the five years since she was diagnosed and treated, she has been closely monitored by her doctor.

“Every three months, I have a visit–it was just physical exams, keeping a close eye on it,” Star said. She only has one more appointment, after which she will be released by her surgeon with a clean bill of health.

However, Star remains mindful of the danger cancer still poses.

“I do have to watch closely for other types of cancer, so there’s other screenings that I do once a year, for other things, just to make sure,” Star said. She emphasized the importance of taking responsibility and keeping up with her own health.

Star credits support from family and friends as what got her through the hardest times, and offers a word of advice for anybody who knows somebody dealing with cancer:

“There’s not a lot that you can do, but just showing support in some way is so meaningful, whether it’s just a phone call, or a text, or a Facebook message–anything simple just really means a lot.”

Maddie Wright

Cancer significantly impacts its victims, as well as their loved ones. Maddie Wright, a current senior at DHS, was affected when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Her mother, swamped with the tasks of recovery, received help from everyone in the family. Wright was juggling the task of being a student as well as a caregiver to her mother, helping with her appointments and around the house.

Following Wright’s mother’s successful recovery from breast cancer, the family became active soldiers against cancer by raising money and awareness. Several times a year, Wright participates in cancer walks on her mother’s team.

“There’s money that is raised for her team. This promotes awareness because those funds are donated to the American Cancer Society,” Wright said.

Although defeating cancer is an intimidating idea, there is a higher chance of wiping out the illness when there are people like Wright and her family, who fight cancer long after the threat to themselves is gone.

Clara Gauthier

As of March 2017, breast cancer has been fatal in over 40 thousand of the 3.1 million diagnosed cases. Breast cancer cannot be prevented, but a key component to surviving the disease is early detection. Breast cancer can be detected through mammograms, x-rays that allows specialists to examine for any suspicious areas in the breast tissue.

Clara Gauthier, a DHS freshman, is no stranger to the dangers of breast cancer, as they have affected her own grandmother. A mammogram was crucial to the detection of the cancer plaguing her grandmother; it allowed modern medicine to find and fight the cancer before it was too late.

For those who cannot afford mammograms, early detection is difficult. Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital recognizes this issue, and offers free mammograms to women over the age of 40 on specific dates throughout the year.

Gauthier assists her mother, a pathologist at Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital, with these screenings.

“My mom gives the screenings and I watch the kids while the mothers are being tested,” Gauthier said.

Since Gauthier isn’t a medical professional capable of administering the screenings herself, she finds other ways to help. Gauthier is proof that all tasks are important when it comes to women’s health.

Autumn Campbell

The importance of being cautious while in the sun has been reflected in one of every five Americans who has skin cancer. These people exhibit symptoms of changes in moles and skin lesions.

DHS art teacher, Autumn Campbell, saw these signs and decided to get tested. She is known as a kind and enthusiastic teacher, whose eagerness to lend a hand was affected when her body was attacked by melanoma. Surgery after surgery drained her of energy, and caused her to be in bed most of the time. Her selfless routines were halted.

“I am a person who takes care of a lot of people, but I wasn’t able to help with my nieces, help around the house, or help with my daughter,” Campbell said.

Cancer not only affects the body, but also alters the way life is lived. For Campbell, recovery time from her surgeries made it difficult to transition back into work. She noticed that she couldn’t match the students’ enthusiasm and she could not put forth the energy that she felt the students deserved.

To prevent others from having to go through what she went through, she actively douses her loved ones in sunscreen and shares her story with them. With her experience and knowledge of melanoma, Campbell was able to help a dear friend.

While out with her friends during the summer, she noticed a spot on her friend’s torso. Sharing what the ins and outs of melanoma look like, she asked him to have it examined by a doctor. The doctor was not concerned by it, but Campbell encouraged him to get a second opinion.

“By the time he was able to get a second opinion, it was confirmed to be melanoma and it had spread through his body,” Campbell said.

Her knowledge and experience allowed her to help her friend before his melanoma was untreatable.

Debora Marsh

After taking a chemotherapy pill every night for the last four and a half years, Debora Marsh, DHS English teacher and IB coordinator, will be celebrating the end of her cancer treatments in June of 2018.

Marsh was diagnosed with breast cancer 5 years ago. Since her diagnosis, she has had a lumpectomy and two tamoxifen treatments. While the treatments saved her life they also took their toll on her day to day life.

“I feel like it has made it a lot harder,” Marsh said. “I lose words, I can’t remember things like I used to, I write lists and then lose the lists, stuff like that.”

The American Cancer Society estimates that 252,710 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2017. Furthermore, according to the National Cancer Institute, 40,610 women will die of breast cancer in 2017. While death rates due to breast cancer have decreased significantly in the last 25 years, this number is still high enough to terrify breast cancer patients and their families.

“[My cancer] affected my husband a lot too,” Marsh said. “ He was so afraid I was going to die.”

Breast cancer is caused by mutations in DNA that can be hereditary, a result of lifestyle-related risk factors, and hormones. Marsh’s cancer was specifically an estrogen-based form. Since this form is not hereditary, Marsh’s daughters don’t have to worry about a higher chance of cancer due to their genetics, but they have to think about what their reaction is to increased estrogen in their daily lives.

“Mine was estrogen-based,” Marsh said. “Because of that, they can’t take birth control pills. They don’t want to increase the amounts of estrogen in their bodies in case they have a similar reaction to what happened in my body.” 

Since her diagnosis, Marsh tried to be a more active in raising awareness about cancer. Throughout her treatment, Marsh has been an example to her students and coworkers.

“I made an effort to work throughout my treatment,” Marsh said. “I had to miss some days of course, but I tried to come at least three days every week. I wanted kids to know that when a person gets cancer they still are themselves. And they might be more sensitive or more tired, but they still are themselves.”

Dexter’s annual Relay for Life event will be held on June 23, 2018, very close to the time Marsh will be reaching the end of her tamoxifen treatment. Marsh plans on taking this opportunity to help fundraise for the cancer community and celebrate.

“I’m going to try to get a really good Relay for Life team, and get a lot of donors and do that because it is probably going to be my last hurrah,” Marsh said. “I want to kind of have a party and celebrate the fact that I am done with it.”

While Marsh is concluding her treatment, thousands of more women around the country and the world are just being diagnosed.  It is a hard battle that many do not win, but with support from friends, family, and community, many are given a fighting chance.

“Accept the gifts of friends and family,” Marsh said.  “Accept that it is hard sometimes. We are proud. Americans don’t like to show weakness, especially I don’t think women like to. And so it’s important to let them help because it makes them feel better, but it’s also important to accept the help to help you open up and feel better.”