Cancer Survivor

Hard-fought victory for Nashua resident

Special to the Sunday News
May 31. 2014 7:10PM
Two months after completing chemotherapy, in October 2003, Carolyn Choate and her family celebrated with a trip to the Grand Canyon. With her are, from left, daughters Mackenzie and Sydney and husband Gordon Jackson. 

Carolyn Choate of Nashua visits Dr. Angela Brodie at the University of Maryland last month. Brodie is the inventor of the drug letrozole, which enabled Choate to recover from Stage III estrogen-positive breast cancer.GORDON JACKSON

Like other cancer survivors, Carolyn Choate of Nashua says nothing was the same after her diagnosis.

The news that she had Stage III estrogen-positive breast cancer, an aggressive cancer with an average survival rate of about three years, was terrifying and heartbreaking.

Choate, who was 45 at the time, had two young daughters, Sydney, 11, and Mackenzie, 9. The physical pain of surgery and the misery of chemotherapy and radiation treatments were minor inconveniences compared to the relentless grief that came with the realization that she might not see her daughters grow up.

For Choate, cancer was a dark umbrella that hovered over every aspect of her life. Whatever she did, wherever she went, cancer and all of its consequences went with her.

But cancer would not be the biggest change in her life, and the day she was diagnosed would not be her defining moment.

That would come later - after the flash of clarity in which Choate recognized her ability to confront cancer head-on and after a long stretch of treatments, tests and a new drug, letrozole, that has kept her cancer at bay.

"I remember I realized I had gone nearly a whole day without thinking about cancer," she recalled.

That, Choate said, was the major victory in her fight against cancer, which has since reached the 11-year mark. It was proof that she was a worthy opponent for the disease. Cancer was unfair, a lousy luck of the draw, but she had not let it call all the shots.

Rays of hope

The turning point, Choate said, came when she accepted cancer as part of a new reality and understood it was up to her to become a survivor instead of a victim.

"I've always said cancer is the exclusive club you don't want to belong to," said Choate, who today, along with 14 million like her, is celebrating National Cancer Survivors Day.

Launched 27 years ago by the National Cancer Survivors Day Foundation, the quiet holiday is a chance to acknowledge and celebrate the many battles against cancer that have been fought and won.

Choate credits her oncology team and scientific research for giving her the treatment and medications she needed to survive. It's a generous attitude, considering her cancer experience has included a faulty mammogram, painful treatments that sometimes bordered on barbaric, and stark, albeit apologetic, initial diagnoses that left little room for hope.

After a radical mastectomy of her right breast and a round of chemotherapy so potent it turned her fingernails and toenails black, Choate began seeing Nashua-based oncologist Dr. Gautani Rao.

It was through Rao that she learned about new treatments such as letrozole, which stops the body's production of estrogen, the hormone that was fueling her cancer.

Rao was decidedly upbeat, saying that with letrozole, Choate would have at least a 25-percent chance of beating her cancer.

They weren't the best odds, but Choate ran with them. And the drug worked.

Family support

Choate believes letrozole has been the key to surviving cancer, but those who know her best say it's a little more complicated.

"I don't know where it came from, but from the start I had this feeling of confidence that we would overcome this," said Choate's husband, Gordon Jackson. "Knowing her, I knew our chances of getting through this were good."

Originally from a small farming town in Maryland, Choate grew up with a strong sense of adventure and a willingness to accept risks. She and Jackson arrived in Nashua in 1989, by way of Burlington, Vt., to take over Channel 13, a low-power television station that carries local programming.

Over the years, Choate became a familiar face in Nashua, known for her staunch commitment to the community. Jackson figured if she could meet cancer with the same level of energy that she put into her family and her work, everything would work out.

"Rather than run away from cancer, you need to embrace it," he said, adding that Choate had always met challenges head on. "When things are bad, you have to rise to the circumstances; you have to be in control."

Choate's older daughter, Sydney, also believes her mom's determination to live on and live well was what saved her life.

"I don't know anyone else like her," Sydney said. "I've never seen anyone fight so hard and be so proactive."

Sydney was just 12 when Choate was diagnosed. She remembers her mom sitting her down and explaining the cancer. Although Sydney didn't fully understand everything that was involved, she recalls feeling the gravity of the situation.

Sydney also recalls how her parents and her sister relied on one another to get through the tougher moments. Humor was a huge weapon they all wielded against cancer.

"We used to joke that since she had one breast removed, she could get a part-time job at Hooters," Sydney said, laughing at the memory.

That damn-the-torpedoes sense of humor was a gift Choate gave to her daughters. After years of living with the worry that cancer might return and attack her left breast, Choate opted for a second, preventative mastectomy. She is now working on a memoir with the working title "Flat as a Pancake & Loving It."

Community efforts

While her family was the center of her support system, Choate also received encouragement and kindness from Channel 13 viewers, neighbors and friends.

Throughout her treatment, Choate never stopped working, continuing to appear on local news broadcasts. After losing her hair during chemotherapy, she initially wore a wig while she was on the air but found it hot and itchy. One night, while covering local election results, she decided to replace the wig with a baseball cap.

Although it meant going public with her cancer, something she had been reluctant to do, she stood in front of the camera and smiled.

"I got about 300 cards and letters during the first week after that," Choate recalled. "People stopped me everywhere I went to wish me well."

Choate took the concern and support Nashua showed her and responded in kind. She started the Breast Cancer Education Initiative, a grassroots effort targeted at low-income and minority women who were particularly vulnerable to breast cancer.

Working through the Nashua GED center, she lectured and pounded home the message of prevention, early detection and regular mammograms. She also raised money to support women who didn't have health insurance and couldn't afford mammograms and other treatments.

Milestone meeting

Choate originally was prescribed a five-year course of letrozole, but as time passed and it became clear that the medication was doing its job, she decided to remain on the medication. She also became determined to express her thanks to its creator."I started realizing I've given 10 years of my life to this drug, and I would like to meet the person who invented it," she said. "It was like an organ recipient who wants to meet the family of a donor that saved their life."

She arranged a trip to the University of Maryland and delivered a bouquet of yellow roses to Dr. Angela Brodie.

"It was an incredible experience, not just for Carolyn but for Dr. Brodie's research team," said Jackson. "They were used to seeing their work with cancer as little cells they were pushing around on a Petri dish, and all of a sudden they had a living, breathing survivor right in front of them."

While the trip to meet Brodie remains a milestone in her story of survival, Choate knows she'll have to remain vigilant and proactive against the disease for the rest of her life.

And she wouldn't have it any other way.

Despite the pain and challenges, Choate said, cancer has opened the door to a rich world of new experiences and relationships.

"This life of mine - this is who I am, and I love it," she said. "It really is a great adventure."

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