The 2010 Merrill Relay for Life Hero of Hope is Gloria Lukes. Gloria is a nine-year survivor, diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a disease of the bone marrow, in 2001.
Gloria says that she is very honored to be named this year’s Relay Hero of Hope.
“I had already shared my story at the 2007 Relay, and thought that there were other survivors who would want to share their experiences,” Gloria said. “When I was told that I was the ‘Hero’ for this year, I was surprised, to say the least. It’s humbling to me that people still feel that I have an inspiring story to tell, and that maybe I can give a new survivor a feeling of hope.”
In the early summer of 2001, Gloria noticed that she seemed to be tired more than usual, and was having some low back problems. When the pain continued to get worse, escalating to not being able to bend over, she finally sought medical treatment, where she was diagnosed with the disease, commonly linked to other blood cancers such as Leukemia and Lymphoma. The news came as a complete surprise, as she never expected it to be cancer. And she will never forget that fateful day, Sept. 11, 2001.
“While the world was fixated on the tragedy unfolding with the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, I was going through my own private nightmare,” she says.
Gloria immediately began chemotherapy treatments, which brought her blood counts back into the normal range. She says that she was able to work throughout all of this, and only had shared her diagnosis with a select few people; her family, her boss, and a few friends. During the next couple of years, she continued to do well, but in early 2006, she developed pneumonia and in combination with declining hemoglobin blood counts, she became very ill, and not sure what was going to happen next. She says that thinking back on that time in her life was one of the lowest points ever.
“I basically existed on my living room sofa,” she said. “I could hardly walk, couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go anywhere, and it felt that the world and my life was just passing by me. One day, I just looked up in the air and said, ‘Lord, I am not ready to leave this earth, and I need you to help me get back on my feet and start living again’. After I did that, it seemed like this big calm just came over me, and I knew then that I wasn’t alone and things were going to be ok.
“While the next three months were grueling, including a three week stay at an inpatient physical rehabilitation hospital, along with two months of intense physical and occupational therapy, I was able to slowing gain control of my life again,” she added. “It was not easy, by no means, but I had every intention of reclaiming my life. I wasn’t able to hide the fact that I had cancer anymore, because my physical appearance had changed so much. I had lost so much height (almost a full foot), and a tremendous amount of weight.”
Gloria underwent a successful stem cell transplant in September 2006, and continues to undergo periodic drug maintenance therapies to remain in remission. In late 2008, she underwent a successful right hip surgery to repair a fracture sustained from the disease.
She gives credit to her wonderful medical team of doctors and nurses who continue to care for her. “I can’t say enough great things about my doctor, who I feel has saved my life, unfortunately for me, more than once,” she said. “I also can’t begin to thank my family and friends for their care and support. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for my mother, who I still depend on. I can’t thank her enough for all she does for me.”
Gloria says that her grandson Chase, who was only 2 at the time she was very ill, has no memories of that time.
“He was a big reason why I needed to fight to get better,” Gloria said. “I didn’t want to miss one minute of him growing up. And now I also have a granddaughter, Carsyn, who is 18 months. I want to be able to enjoy my grandchildren.”
While her nine-year journey with this disease continues to be at the forefront of her daily life, she tries to not let it stop her from living as “normal” as possible. She says that while living with Myeloma can sometimes be frustrating, it is also a constant reminder that each day is a gift, and she feels very blessed that she is still able to have a quality life. She hopes that she can be an inspiration to others who may be struggling with this disease.
“Having cancer is not an automatic death sentence any more,” she said. “In the almost 9 years since I was first diagnosed, there have been tremendous strides in research and development of new treatments and drug therapies. That is why I relay, so that we can raise money to continue to fight for a cure, and, as our theme for this year is ‘Have more Birthdays’.”