She's fought back breast cancer twice. He was given three weeks to live with late-stage lung cancer -- and that was four years ago.
D. Lynne Wager and her husband, Mike Magerko, came to Stony Brook University Medical Center's annual National Cancer Survivors Day celebration Sunday to tell their stories to anyone who would listen. His experimental treatment and support-group sessions; her rounds of chemotherapy -- the Coram couple shared their struggles to help de-stigmatize their diseases.
"Cancer is not the bogeyman," said Wager, 61, a psychiatric social worker. "People need to be engaged and ready to fight. Pulling the covers over your head is not the way to go."
Magerko, 60, a former Long Island Rail Road worker, said, simply, "We need to stop demonizing cancer." His message was echoed by the event's keynote speaker, activist and cancer survivor Ted Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy, the son of late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, lost his leg to osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, at age 12 in 1973. He's now a health-care attorney and disabled-rights activist.
"Back then, people didn't talk about it. It was almost like a contagious disease," Kennedy told the crowd of several hundred, urging them to set a positive example for those newly diagnosed with cancer. "We need to not isolate ourselves emotionally."
Beyond medical care and family support, Kennedy said a big part of recovery is getting guidance from someone you can relate to. By showing up, he gave that to Caitlin Zaugg.
The 17-year-old Medford girl was told last August that she had the same bone cancer as Kennedy. An early diagnosis, followed by aggressive chemotherapy and surgery, allowed her to keep her leg, but the soon-to-be-senior at Patchogue-Medford High School continues suppressive chemotherapy treatment and must use crutches to get around.
"It tells me there's hope for everybody," she said of seeing Kennedy speak. "The doctors told me what I had was curable, and 'Your future is bright,' but there's really no words to describe what you're feeling."
Zaugg said she hopes ultimately to provide support for children dealing with cancer, passing along positive affirmation and practical tips the way Kennedy has -- not to mention Wager and Magerko.
But those lofty goals were put aside for an afternoon. For Zaugg, a highlight of the survivors' celebration was seeing her doctor -- Stony Brook's director of pediatric hematology/oncology, Dr. Robert Parker -- dropped in a dunk tank.
"Today is their day," said Parker, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and being the good sport.