As both a long-time cancer survivor and, more recently, a COVID-19 survivor, I know firsthand how a medical issue can surprise and test you, physically and mentally. “Life is full of uncertainties; it’s not until they descend upon us that we know how resilient we are,” says Cleveland Clinic psychologist Scott Bea, Psy.D. It’s natural for survivors to feel both vulnerability and mastery, he says.
We all survive something, and, eventually—if we’re lucky—we grow as people and take away something valuable and illuminating from the experience. I know I did. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in my 30s when I had two young children, I was faced with challenges I hadn’t expected until I had more life experience under my belt. I survived—and came away with a deep understanding of the precious and precarious nature of life. Since then, I have tried to be fully present and grateful for each day.
Read on to find out how three other people dealt with extraordinary circumstances as they waded through fear and vulnerability to emerge with newfound strength.
Stroke Survivor Brian Kurtz
On the morning of April 10, 2020, 62-year-old Brian Kurtz, a businessman and author from Connecticut, began his day as he always did: He kissed his sleeping wife, Robin, then headed to the bathroom. But Kurtz’s normal routine took a drastic turn when he suddenly collapsed in a heap on the floor. The sound of the fall woke Robin, who immediately called 911. “I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance; my mind was extremely fuzzy, and I couldn’t speak or move my right arm,” recalls Kurtz.
He learned the details when he woke the next day. “My wife told me, ‘You had a massive stroke. You almost died.’’’ Kurtz had suffered an acute ischemic stroke, a potentially debilitating and deadly type of stroke that occurs when a blood clot obstructs blood supply to the brain.
Strokes, the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., cause one death every four minutes. They are medical emergencies, and quick treatment to restore blood flow to the brain greatly improves a patient’s odds of survival and risk of complications like memory loss, paralysis and speech and vision problems. Nearly half of stroke survivors never regain total independence.
Fortunately, when Kurtz arrived at the hospital, a neurosurgeon specializing in his type of stroke was on duty—an amazing stroke of luck for Kurtz, who was promptly whisked into surgery to remove the clot.
Following the surgery, his arm motion was restored, as was his ability to think and speak clearly. Although he did permanently lose vision in his left eye, he feels extremely blessed. “I knew I dodged a bullet. My doctor told me that most people in my situation have much more serious impairments.”
Kurtz, who also survived prostate cancer in 2008, admits to feeling depressed and vulnerable for many months following his ordeal. But what he calls his “near-death experience” didn’t take away his determination to get back to normal through rest, good nutrition, physical activity and plenty of patience. “I always knew what was important to me; now more than ever, there’s a certain urgency about living my best life.”
Related: 5 Things Women Need to Know About Stroke
Coronavirus Survivor Diana Berrent
On Friday, March 13, 46-year-old New York resident and professional photographer Diana Berrent woke with 102-degree fever, heavy chest pressure and a deep cough. “I’d been following the coronavirus stories and was familiar enough with the symptoms of COVID-19 to assume I had the virus.” Berrent, who lives on Long Island, immediately isolated in her bedroom to protect her husband and two children.
But despite pleading for a test, Berrent was told that unless she’d traveled to Iran, China or Italy in the previous eight weeks or had come in close contact with another infected person, she was not eligible. Frustrated and feeling a duty to protect others from possible infection, she turned to Facebook to warn others. She’d photographed an event at her children’s school just weeks before and wanted to let people know. Her post was widely shared, eventually catching the attention of her local congressman, who intervened and ordered her a test.
Although Berrent’s immediate reaction to her positive diagnosis was one of tremendous relief—“I remembered enough from my 10th-grade biology class to know that I’d have antibodies. I’d now have superpowers!”—she also felt anxious and vulnerable. “So little was known about the virus at that point, with so many sad stories. I was very frightened.”
While she recovered—her symptoms also included headaches, fatigue and nausea—Berrent helped herself by helping others. She launched a grassroots effort to connect COVID-19 survivors with opportunities to assist in the nation’s recovery through scientific and academic research and plasma donation. Plasma from recovered patients contains COVID-19 antibodies, which can potentially help save lives of others infected with the virus. “Survivor Corps, which has over 50,000 members on Facebook, is the COVID generation’s Peace Corps,” said Berrent. “Through serving on the front lines, we can all work together to find a vaccine and a cure to end this pandemic.”
Related: How to Stay Safe During the Coronavirus Crisis If You Already Have a Chronic Condition
Lung Cancer Survivor Sanda Cohen
In 2018, physician Sanda Cohen was so busy caring for her patients and family—her husband underwent surgery for a heart attack, and her mother-in-law was in failing health—that she ignored a lingering cough for months, blaming it on seasonal allergies. But when Cohen’s cough didn’t improve, and she was hit with severe fatigue and shortness of breath, she decided it was time to get help. “After some blood work and a chest X-ray, the doctors thought I had pneumonia,” Cohen says. But further studies, including an MRI and CT scan, detected something more serious: a large mass on her lung, the size of a tennis ball.
Cohen, now 63, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky—a state with the highest rate of new lung cancer cases in the nation last year—never smoked or had any health problems. But that didn’t protect her from the frightening diagnosis of stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer. “I was shocked; I never thought I’d get lung cancer. Instead, I worried about breast cancer.” Yet lung cancer kills more women each year than breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined, with 20 percent of the cancers occurring in women who have never smoked. Symptoms vary between men and women: Men are more likely to cough up blood or develop respiratory infections; while women often experience shortness of breath and fatigue.
Though surgery was not an option—the cancer had already spread to other places in her body—after meeting with an oncologist, Cohen learned that she was a candidate for immunotherapy, a type of treatment that stimulates the immune system to target and attack its own cancer cells while preserving its healthy cells. Within weeks of her diagnosis, she began a breakthrough combination treatment combining chemotherapy and immunotherapy. “My doctors feel that this is what’s made the difference in what was a very dismal prognosis.” Just three months after starting treatment, the main mass had shrunk by nearly half, and Cohen’s scans continue to show promising results.
Currently, lung cancer’s five-year survival rate is 21.7 percent, up from 17.2 percent a decade ago. “I’m so fortunate that immunotherapy is around now to treat my cancer,” says Cohen, who adds that her greatest inspiration to continue to fight are her family, especially her two young grandchildren. Her advice to others? “Pay attention to your body. Go to your doctor if something is wrong. Keep fighting, and never give up.”
Next, Lung Cancer Survivors Share Their Heart-Wrenching Cancer Journeys