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Battling cancer: 2 survivors' story

Kevin and Joyce O'Brien are shown on their

Kevin and Joyce O'Brien are shown on their front porch of their East Northport home with daughters Dasha, 7, and Kelsey, 13. Ten years ago, both Kevin and Joyce were diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Doctors gave them little hope of survival. Crediting their determination, faith, and the lifestyle changes they made, the couple is now cancer free. (April 4, 2011) Photo Credit: John Paraskevas

When she was a teenager, Joyce O'Brien's father gave her the steel frame of a 1965 Mustang. If she wanted a car, she had to build it. "Don't think you can't do it," he said. "If you keep trying, you can figure anything out."

Joyce built that Mustang. She also became the managing director of a $2-billion Wall Street business, married the love of her life and started building their dream house in East Northport. She planned to fill it with at least five children.

Then her world came crashing down when she and her husband, Kevin, were diagnosed with late-stage cancers less than two years apart.

Joyce, then 35, had something new, and horrific, to figure out.

The five-year saga began March 1, 1996. Joyce had already left for work when Kevin called. He sounded tired and disoriented as he downplayed the situation, saying he felt a little funny and a little numb.

"I think I pinched a nerve or something," he said in slurred speech.

In reality, Kevin was unable to get out of bed because the numbness extended down his right arm and leg. After being admitted to intensive care and undergoing hours of testing, the doctor concluded that the healthy, strapping, then 31-year-old had suffered a brain hemorrhage and three strokes that morning, leaving him paralyzed on his right side. The hemorrhage also meant he needed brain surgery.

"Oh, dear God," prayed a mentally, physically and emotionally drained Joyce, "please let my husband be OK."

After a successful operation and months of intense physical therapy, Kevin regained all movement in his arm and about 90 percent in his leg and returned to his construction job.

A year later, the O'Brien household was filled with excitement when Joyce learned she was pregnant. The news, however, was quickly tempered by routine tests that led doctors to suspect that the baby had spina bifida. Doctors recommended that they abort. The O'Briens refused. After months of worry and 36 hours of labor, Joyce gave birth to a healthy daughter, Kelsey.

Little did the O'Briens know that their baby scare foreshadowed a wave of terrible news.

When Kelsey was 8 months old, Joyce discovered a large lump in her breast. It turned out to be Stage 2B breast cancer, with a 74 percent five-year survival rate, according to a National Cancer Data Base survey of people diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and 2002.

The painful mastectomy and four months of agonizing chemotherapy left the new mother, already devastated after being told she could not have more children, unable to hold her little girl. On top of that, Joyce lost her Wall Street job plus all her medical, disability and life insurance.

The streak of bad health news left the O'Briens wondering what more could go wrong.

They soon got their answer when Kevin was diagnosed with Stage 3B malignant melanoma in 1999, and a year later came the worst news of all: Joyce was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. Doctors did not expect the couple to live to see their 3-year-old's next birthday.

But the O'Briens have been cancer-free for 10 years, a feat they attribute mostly to biological medicine, dietary and lifestyle changes, faith and determination.

Joyce, now 45, said her body was on a path of destruction for many years. She said she existed on a high-sugar, high-stress lifestyle and had frequent migraines, sinus infections and was constantly fatigued.

"Our body is telling us that something's not right, but if we ignore it and allow these physical, mental and emotional problems to perpetuate in our body, that's when we get something more serious," she said. "You gotta get it in the whisper."

The O'Briens said they ignored the whispers until they got the "death sentences."

Kevin's survival rate was deemed to be 20 to 30 percent. Doctors recommended interferon treatment because his form of cancer, they said, did not respond to chemotherapy. Kevin became part of a vaccine study, but it was canceled halfway through testing because many participants were dying, and patients including Kevin were not allowed to continue with interferon treatment.

"But there's nothing else out there," he pleaded to his doctors. "What am I supposed to do?"

Joyce was also given the "I'm sorry" from her doctor after being told that chemotherapy and radiation were ineffective for her Stage 4 cancer. Still, the dilemma for the O'Briens was not a matter of if they would live, but how.

While Western conventional medicine aims to treat the symptoms of an illness, Joyce explains that biological medicine's mission is to address the factors triggering the illness in the first place. A personalized treatment plan is implemented to remove such root causes and restore the body to a healthy balance.

"We don't treat against the illness; we treat for the individual," said Thomas Rau, medical director of the Paracelsus Klinik in Lustmuhle, Switzerland, which for more than 50 years has been considered an international center for natural medicine and treats chronic illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and coronary heart disease. "We strengthen the immune system so the body itself can work against the illness."


Medicine's role
But Louis Potters, chairman of radiation medicine at North Shore University Hospital and LIJ Medical Center, said until scientific data supports biological medicine, it is a complement to conventional practice. "I try to provide hope to patients, but I don't try to bias that hope with anecdotes," he said. "An anecdote shouldn't be held up as a flag for complementary care. There are still patients with extreme cases who are cured with conventional medicine."

Rau, who treated the O'Briens for 2½  years, praises them for the degree to which they took their illness into their own hands, especially Joyce. "She really practiced what we told her and took responsibility for her disease, which made her win the battle," he said. "She changed her lifestyle, diet and she visited the clinic several times for detoxification treatment. In the end, her body had no more cause to be cancerous, so the cancer weakened and ultimately disappeared."

Potters considers some detoxification treatments, such as whole-body hyperthermia, to be potentially dangerous, and while respecting his patients' decisions, he said he recommends careful consideration and research into the possible side effects of complementary approaches. He also said that taking responsibility, as Joyce did, can empower cancer patients.

Joyce said she told herself, "I'll do whatever it takes to live," and relied on savings and home equity loans to finance the treatments. She reduced her carbohydrate intake and eliminated all sugar and sugar-based foods from her diet. Pasta, M&Ms and fruits were replaced with raw greens, vegetables and eight ounces of wheatgrass every day.

With "can't" banned from her vocabulary since childhood, Joyce refused to settle for anything less than success.

"She had a drive to beat this," said Kevin. "She certainly didn't dwell in that place of negativity. I, on the other hand, held on to the negative. I was already paralyzed after strokes and a brain hemorrhage two years before and said, 'Enough. Why me?'

"Negativity was my friend for so long until, after Stage 3, I started addressing the emotional side and realized that if things aren't going as planned, there's still a reasoning and blessing behind it, and if you look a little harder, you'll find it."


A lifestyle change
Before the late-stage cancers hit, the O'Briens were working hard, traveling and playing golf, trying to live life to the fullest, but health was not a top priority. They considered a day successful if they got through it and juggled all of its tasks. Now their goal is to feel great every day.

Joyce, now an author, speaker and vitality specialist, spends her days lecturing and coaching people across the country to help improve their physical, mental and emotional health. The O'Briens' journey is told in Joyce's new book, "Choose to Live," available on their website (, and at local bookstores.

At the end of the day, the O'Briens and their daughters -- Kelsey, 13, and Dasha, 7, who was adopted from Russia in 2007 -- gather in the kitchen and share a home-cooked meal of vegetable lasagna and fresh salad with mixed greens, fennel, yellow tomatoes and roasted red peppers. Kelsey eats the "licorice," or fennel, straight from the salad bowl, while Dasha requests her mom's berry and vegetable pink smoothie for dessert.

"Getting sick was the best thing that ever happened to us," said Joyce. "It changed our lives in such a way that I can't picture going back to the life we had even before the cancer."

The O'Briens' empowering and inspirational journey is told in Joyce's newly released book, "Choose to Live," which is available on their Web site (, and at local bookstores.

Joyce O'Brien will be speaking at the Woman to Woman event next week in Melville. A female panel of medical and health experts and authors will weigh in on several topics, including hormones, antiaging, stress, nutrition, children and relationships. Admission is free.

When and where.  April 28, 6  to 10 p.m.; Huntington Hilton, 598 Broadhollow Rd., Melville.

She will also be speaking at the Navel Expo, where wellness-oriented physicians, authors and celebrity activists will be available to the public, and holding lectures from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $20.

When and where.  May 1 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Huntington Hilton, 598 Broadhollow Rd., Melville.


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