Expect the worst…but hope for the best
By Reggie Ellis
exeter – When Dana Berner was diagnosed with cancer she wasn’t shocked. In fact, she expected it. What was more shocking to Berner is the type of cancer she was diagnosed with, thyroid cancer, which has one of the highest survival rates, because she was expecting the doctor to say leukemia, which has one of the lowest survival rates.
“It wasn’t a surprise that cancer crept into my life,” she said. “I was extremely proactive with annual exams and routine self exams but the likelihood that I would get cancer was pretty good given my family history.”
Berner’s grandmother and aunt on her mother’s side both died from leukemia, a group of blood cancers that spread through cells in bone marrow. Her cousin was killed by colon cancer. Her father Stanley Curtis, the only other family member to survive cancer, was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that begins in infection-fighting cells of the immune system, called lymphocytes.
“I had dealt with cancer my whole life,” she said. “It just didn’t scare me.”
The family was battling much more than genetics as they made their home in Hinkley, Calif. The town was made famous by the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, named after the legal clerk, played by Julia Roberts, who investigated the link between illnesses in the community, such as cancer, and a toxic chemical used to prevent rust in underground natural gas pipelines. When the cancer-causing additive was flushed from the system, the wastewater was disposed of in ponds surrounding the town, and eventually seeped into the local water system. Brockovich’s work helped lead to a 1996 PG&E settlement of $333 million, the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history at the time.
“We didn’t know about all of that at the time but it answers a lot of questions about our family’s history with cancer,” she said.
The last of Berner’s family member’s to die from cancer was the hardest. Her mother, Patsy Luisi, was also diagnosed with leukemia in 1990. By the time they discovered the cancer, Berner said her mother’s gall bladder was riddled with tumors and doctors said she didn’t have much time before her body shut down.
“I had dealt with cancer my whole life, so I came home and spent that last week with her,” said Berner who was 27 at the time. “I had to make the decision to take her off the ventilator and then watch her pass.”
Watching her mother pass and finally understanding that the same cancer had nearly taken her entire family didn’t seem to affect Berner when she was diagnosed with her own cancer in May 2009. In some ways, she looked at thyroid cancer as a blessing as her chances of survival were nearly 40% better than if she had been diagnosed with leukemia. Berner said she was never scared from the time the doctor’s gave her the news through the surgery to remove her thyroid. It wasn’t until two weeks after surgery during her radiation treatment that Berner was “freaked out.” After being scrubbed clean, Berner was led to an empty room with a chair in the middle. She was not allowed to touch anything and awaited the treatment. After a few minutes, a man in a full hazmat suit comes into the room carrying a metal box. He then opens the box, handles an oversized pill, made of radioactive iodine, with metal tongs and then tells her to swallow it. She was then told no matter how sick she became, she was not allowed to vomit because the radiation mixed with stomach acid could do irreparable damage to her esophagus. When she did become sick, she called for a nurse, who ran in with a syringe and injected her with a powerful sedative. She woke up three hours later. She was kept under quarantine for the next three days so that her body could filter out the radiation through urination.
“It was something out of a science fiction film,” Berner said. “Each day they waved a Geiger counter over me and made sure the radiation levels were dropping.”
Things didn’t get much more comfortable when she arrived home where she had to keep a distance from her family. She was instructed to remain 10 feet from her two sons, Brandon and Jordan, as well as her husband David. Despite warnings, David would sit and hold hands with Dana until the residual radiation made him nauseas. Her clothes had to be washed separately and each time she used the toilet it had to be sanitized.
“You kind of feel like an outsider,” she said. “I also felt like death.”
Berner also didn’t realize how many things her thyroid controlled. She will have to take a pill for the rest of her life to help her body regulate her metabolism, body temperature, muscle strength, appetite, and to protect her heart, brain, kidneys, and reproductive system by producing the right level of hormones for those essential organs to function properly.
Possibly drawing on her Hinkley roots, Berner followed in Brockovich’s footsteps and worked as a paralegal for 30 years before being diagnosed with cancer. But after her treatment, she decided to walk away from that career, make one-third of her former salary and become a professional people person. She took a job as a pastor at her church, the Church of God of Exeter, and spent her weekday mornings volunteering at Exeter schools.
“I live every day like a new day and like spending that day with people,” Berner said.
Not one for drama and dwelling on the past, Berner said one of her few regrets in life is not being able to experience Relay for Life with her mother. After being diagnosed after Exeter’s Relay for Life in 2009, she attended the event in 2010 with her family. She walked the track during the luminaria ceremony, where the lights of Exeter Stadium are turned off and the track is only lit by the paper white paper lanterns adorned with the names of those who survived and those who did not. Berner said she was overwhelmed with emotion when she saw the luminary lantern glowing with her mother’s name.
“As a family, we just lost it,” she said. “I was a blubbering mess. It hits you all at once that every bag out there is a person whose cancer has taken their life or affected their entire family.”
The impactful moment has kept her coming back to the Exeter Relay For Life every year since. For the last three years she has found a way to combine her passion for fighting cancer and caring for children by running the Kids Camp at the Exeter Relay. She said she enjoys hanging out and watching the kids have fun at the bounce houses, arts and crafts table and other activities that have included a pirate ship and Disney characters.
“I love being with the kids,” she said. “I try to take the time to tell them they are special and just show them I care. You’d be amazed how just saying you like what they are wearing can change their whole day and mean the world to them.”
Working with the kids, her own physical healing and the emotional healing from her mother’s passing has helped Berner enjoy Relay For Life a little more each year. Each year she walks the Survivor Lap with a smile on her face knowing that her mom is watching from a better place.
“Now I do the Survivor Lap for me and my mom,” she said. “It’s a time to walk with her memories instead of thinking about how we never walked it together.”