Daily Journal staff reports
Turning 55 will be more than just another birthday for Robin Overton-Morrison; it will mean a significant victory.
Last November, Overton-Morrison was diagnosed with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma lung cancer, the same form of cancer that took her father in 1991, only three months after he got his diagnosis. She knew what the disease is capable of.
But with the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis approaching next month, she is still alive, active and positive. Her tumors have decreased in size by about 90 percent. And she is determined to have a big party for her 55th birthday on Dec. 13 to celebrate surviving the most harrowing year of her life.
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“Most cancers are no longer the death sentences that they used to be,” Overton-Morrison said. “My tumors are getting smaller and smaller, and my cancer markers are going down. I’m making progress.”
Overton-Morrison’s prognosis looks a lot better now than it did initially. She learned about the cancer in September last year after returning from a vacation. Robin and her husband, Clark, had gone on a trip to Montana to visit her youngest daughter’s family. She felt an intense pain in the middle of her back. She’d had back surgery to fuse two vertebrae, but this pain was in a different area and didn’t feel the same.
She went to see her doctor, who ordered a CAT scan. The scan showed a 2-inch tumor in her lungs. In addition, the vertebra behind the tumor was missing — the mass was eating into her spine, prompting a preliminary diagnosis of lung cancer. The news hit her hard.
“The doctor asked if I had any questions, and I said, ‘I don’t know where to begin,’” she said. “Then, I went out to my car, called Clark and started crying. Then, I went to work and ended up crying. They sent me home for the day.”
The doctor ordered a PET scan and brain MRI, which revealed several more areas of concern — five lesions in her brain and five metastatic tumors in her liver, 12 in her lymph nodes, three in her pelvis, one on her left femur bone and even more up and down her spine. Altogether, she had 32 cancerous areas throughout her body.
“The first few days were like a slow-moving train wreck,” Clark Morrison said. “We got one piece of bad news right after the other.”
Robin Overton-Morrison left her job in late September last year as her symptoms worsened. In November, she received her official diagnosis of Stage 4 adenocarcinoma lung cancer, which is inoperable and offers a slim rate of survival.
A lifelong nonsmoker
According to the American Cancer Society, adenocarcinoma is usually found in outer parts of the lung, starting in early versions of cells that would normally secrete mucus. It accounts for about 40 percent of lung cancers and occurs mainly in current or former smokers. However, it is also the most common type of lung cancer seen in nonsmokers.It is more common in women than in men and is more likely to occur in younger people than other types of lung cancer. A lifelong nonsmoker, Robin Overton-Morrison believes the cancer was passed to her genetically from her father.
Robin Overton-Morrison’s doctors acted fast, with aggressive treatment.
She received two weeks of radiation treatments to the brain at the end of last year and radiation treatments for the tumors in her pelvis.
Though the brain treatments caused her to lose most of her memories of last November and December, the radiation greatly reduced the size of the tumors.
The pelvis treatments greatly eased the intense hip pain she’d been experiencing. In place of chemotherapy, the doctors prescribed a newer drug, Tarceva.
Since Overton-Morrison’s cancer tested positive for epidermal growth factor receptors, special targeted drug therapy was needed. Though these receptors control several positive everyday bodily functions, such as growing cells, they also can mutate and fuel fast growth of cancer cells. Tarceva inhibits the activity of the receptors, essentially halting the further growth of cancer cells.
Tarceva has been used as a supplementary treatment to chemotherapy for several years but has been approved for use as a solo cancer drug for only four years, making it comparatively experimental. Though the couple were nervous about the idea of trying out a newer drug, they said that when cancer is in Stage 4, you have nothing to lose.
Fortunately, their decision paid off. The drug treatments have shrunk Robin Overton-Morrison’s tumors by approximately 90 percent. And, unlike her experience with other drugs previously, she hasn’t had any allergic reactions. Doctors told them that the drug was twice as effective as chemotherapy and has half the side effects, such as the loss of hair and nails, but they are still noticeable.
“The drug inhibits epidermal growth factor production,” Clark Morrison said. “Too bad epidermal growth factors are also necessary for the growth of every mucus membrane, your hair follicles and your skin. They all need it, too.”
‘An excellent alternative’
Robin Overton-Morrison didn’t like losing her hair or her nails, but she has adjusted. She now wears a long brunette wig and regularly has her nails done with acrylics.She still takes a capsule of Tarceva every morning, which costs more than $200 a day. It’s expensive but has gotten results and with fewer side effects than chemotherapy, she said.
“I think the Tarceva has been an excellent alternative to chemo,” she said. “I have had very few side effects. There’s a lady at our church who is going through chemo right now, and it’s tearing her up.”
She’s been getting positive feedback from her oncologist, Dr. Gregory Smith at Johnson Memorial Hospital, and said he always enters the room with a smile during her appointments.
Before her diagnosis, Robin Overton-Morrison was a case manager for the Salvation Army’s Shelbyville location, a job that she truly loved. Now on disability leave, she focuses the bulk of her energy on the hobbies she didn’t have enough time for in the past. Not being able to work forced her to redefine herself, she said.
She and her husband sing in the Thursday night praise band at Southport United Methodist Church and give occasional performances as a duo at local nursing homes, with him playing guitar.
A talented artist, she also spends a lot of time drawing. Their house is adorned with framed examples of some of her best works — mostly sketches done from photos of relatives, animals and buildings.
This year, with her husband’s encouragement, Robin Overton-Morrison began selling her drawings online as a way to generate extra income doing something she enjoys. Her online shop is called Tiny Waif’s Art Studio, a reference to her 4-foot, 10-inch height and weight that stays in the low 90s, no matter how hard she tries to go above 100 pounds.
Always petite, Robin Overton-Morrison has seen herself get even smaller since her diagnosis.
“I’ve lost 35 pounds so far, but what I’m most upset about is the inch-and-a-half I’ve lost in my height,” she said. “I don’t have many inches left to lose. It’s been a real challenge putting a wardrobe together. There’s nothing in my size.”
‘A really big bash’
She works hard to gain weight, although it’s hard for her to find foods that are easy to swallow, a symptom she has noticed ever since her diagnosis. When she finds those foods, she has her husband stock up on them. She looks forward to visits from her friends, chocolate milkshakes and other sweet treats.Her oldest daughter, Rose Deal, a chiropractics student at Parker University in Dallas, has been trying to steer her toward healthier foods, such as berries and protein shakes, but hasn’t had much luck.
“She doesn’t like all the foods that are good for you, like avocados and hummus,” Rose Deal said. “At this point, though, she’s lost so much weight that the malnutrition will be more harmful to her than eating less-healthy foods.”
Deal tries to visit her mother once a month and says her mother’s positive attitude has helped her worry a little less and believe more in an eventual victory.
“I’m definitely excited that we’re getting closer to the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis and she is still improving,” Deal said. “Each month we get closer to her birthday celebration, and her tumors keep shrinking. We’ll have a really big bash for her in December.”
Drawing up a bucket list
What has kept Robin Overton-Morrison going is her newfound ability to somehow find humor in her condition. This has helped her and her husband through the toughest days and provided inspiration and hope to other cancer patients, she said.“You’ve got to laugh because if you don’t, you’ll start crying pretty quickly,” she said. “I honestly believe if you dwell on yourself and your illness, it will drag you down. We both have overactive imaginations anyway, so it’s better that we don’t dwell on the bad.”
Cancer has also taught her and Clark to treasure every day they have together and have a stronger appreciation for life and health.
“Never take your life or your health for granted,” Clark Morrison said. “Robin had just landed her dream job before she was diagnosed with cancer and had bought her dream car. You can go from being on top to fighting for your life in no time.”
Robin’s experience has also led her to develop a bucket list of what she wants to do most in whatever time she has left. For instance, she wants to see Mount Rushmore and Lookout Mountain and meet Matt Overton, her favorite Indianapolis Colts player. She admires him not only because his last name and her maiden name are the same but also because of the support he has given to local children undergoing cancer treatments.
And of course, there’s that 55th birthday. Having a birthday so close to Christmas and all of the events leading up to it, she’s rarely ever had a birthday party. And she has no memory of her birthday last year. But this year, there will be too much to celebrate to not have a party.
“I told Clark we’re going to have a birthday party for me this year, and that’s that,” Robin Overton-Morrison said.
Name: Robin Morrison
Date diagnosed: November 2014
Type of cancer: Stage 4 adenocarcinoma
What cancer taught me: Life can throw you a curveball, you can’t just pull things together on your own, and the most important things in life are your family, friends, pets and faith. The only way I can get through is with God. There is no other way. It’s just very, very scary.
How cancer changed me: I had never been able to joke about something so serious in life until I got cancer. Now, I’m able to joke about cancer. I want to be handled with humor and grace. I have found that being able to have a sense of humor about my condition has helped to inspire and uplift other cancer patients.
What I would tell someone diagnosed with cancer: Cancer is not a death sentence. Go to your doctor. Take the treatments he or she recommends. If you don’t, the cancer is going to spread. The side effects of the treatment are better than the alternative. If you don’t get that treatment, the other side is that you will die. If you do get your treatments, you might make it to your next birthday.
Also, figure out who your true friends are and get closer to your family. Lean on them. They are the ones who will be there for you.