By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn.– State Rep. Lois DeBerry has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season — mainly being alive.
After nearly three years of battling pancreatic cancer, the Memphis Democrat was told by her doctors last month that they couldn’t find any trace of the terminal disease.
“It’s the best Christmas present I could get,” she told The Associated Press.
DeBerry, a lawmaker for nearly 40 years, has been a powerful influence on Capitol Hill. As the first female speaker pro tempore in the House, legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have sought her support to pass key legislation.
She’s worked tirelessly to pass bills of her own that seek to benefit the poor, children and senior citizens. Some days she’s so busy she doesn’t even have time to eat.
It took cancer to slow her down, for a while at least.
DeBerry discovered she had early stages of the disease in 2009. A fellow lawmaker noticed her eyes were yellow, or jaundiced, and suggested she see a doctor.
After being diagnosed, DeBerry underwent several weeks of chemotherapy before having surgery. She followed that up with several months of more chemo treatments and the cancer seemed to have gone into remission. But there was a setback.
“I was told if this cancer comes back, it comes back within your first two years,” DeBerry said. “I was one month from two years when it came back.”
At that point DeBerry said she felt like giving up. Instead, she said she relied on her faith and the overwhelming support of family, friends and political colleagues who strengthened her “will to fight to live.”
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam was one of those who prayed with DeBerry.
“I think sometimes the way that things happen in life, maybe the best way you can judge people is when things aren’t going well,” Haslam said. “And Lois … never let it drag her down.”
During a second major surgery, doctors removed DeBerry’s pancreas, which produces several important hormones, such as insulin. The removal left her with Type 1 diabetes and a daily practice of giving herself insulin shots, but she said she’s just thankful to be alive.
“This is the most challenging thing that I’ve undertaken and it is the one thing that really put life into perspective for me,” said DeBerry, who earlier this year joined former House
Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington in being given the honorary title of speaker emeritus.
DeBerry said her 55-year-old cousin also battled the aggressive cancer, but wasn’t as fortunate.
“She was diagnosed on Monday, in hospice on Friday, dead on Monday,” she recalled.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there were about 44,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer in the U.S. in 2011 and more than 37,000 deaths. Among those killed by the disease was Apple founder Steve Jobs and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Adolpho A. Birch, who DeBerry said encouraged her before he died even though he was ailing.
Despite the numbers, medical experts say advances in technology are helping doctors treat pancreatic cancer more effectively, and in some cases cure patients. DeBerry credited the research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for her remission.
“In the last 10 to 20 years, there has been significant advancement in the treatment of pancreatic cancer, in addition to many other cancers,” said Kelly Wright, whose expertise is liver and pancreas surgery at Vanderbilt.
“Part of that advancement is better understanding of when we utilize surgery and when we utilize other treatment strategies to help the patients stay stable and to keep their symptoms under control, which allows them to live longer.”
Wright added that the curative rate for people with pancreatic cancer is now 1 in 4, compared to once being 1 in 8.
State Rep. John Deberry said the advancement in research is important, but he said people also have to want to survive, and his Memphis colleague maintained that desire.
“I think you’re going to have several things working together,” he said. “You’ve got what the doctors can do with medical science … but also, the will within that individual to not see cancer as an automatic death sentence. That person has to get up and have the will to live.”
DeBerry’s colleagues noted that she didn’t let her chemo and radiation treatments slow her down. She missed only a few days of the legislative sessions, and would often drive more than three hours to Memphis after having treatments on a Thursday and return to Nashville on time the following Monday for session.
“I don’t know that there’s anybody that I admire more than Lois DeBerry,” said Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville. “We’re proud of the message that she sends to a lot of other people that suffer from cancer, that you can lick this.”
DeBerry said she feels like she’s been given a new lease on life and she’s not taking it for granted.
She encourages people who might have symptoms of pancreatic cancer — such as jaundice of the eyes or stomach cramps — to not hesitate seeing a doctor. And she’s joined an effort to pass legislation in Congress that seeks to invest more money in the fight against pancreatic cancer.
“God has given me a chance to make a difference in somebody’s life,” she said. “And I intend to do that.”