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Her best-kept secret

EDITOR’S NOTE: In support of Suffolk’s Relay for Life, the Suffolk News-Herald will feature a series of stories in the coming months about how cancer has touched the lives of area families.

When Lynn Pope was diagnosed with cancer 23 years ago, the medical world was a different place.

Cancer meant almost certain death and social exile.

“Cancer 20 years ago was like AIDS is today,” Pope said. “The treatment alone could kill you. There wasn’t much anyone could do, and people would step back. They didn’t know what to think or how to treat you. You stopped being a person and became a cancer patient. It was almost like people were afraid to touch you because they were scared they could get it from you.”

For years, the only people who knew of Pope’s diagnosis were the two people who were in the room when she unexpectedly found out — her husband and brother.

In March 1986, she had a hysterectomy to remove fibroid tumors in her uterus.

“I credit my doctor for saving my life,” Pope said. “I’d gone in for a yearly exam and he felt something in my abdomen. When I came back, he said ‘We need to get this out. We need to get this out now.’ I said out loud ‘Get what out of where?’”

In 1986, there was no taking chances with cancer. A tumor could be benign or it could mean cancer, but one went to extreme measures to make sure it wasn’t.

“I had to run errands the day my doctor told me I needed to have a hysterectomy to make sure it wasn’t cancer,” Pope said. “I remember thinking that every baby in the whole city was in that grocery store at once. I already had two children and didn’t think I wanted more, but to think that possibility was being taken away from me was very hard.”

The surgery vindicated her doctor’s extreme measures, though.

“I remember two doctors in white coats introduced themselves and one said he was an oncologist,” Pope said. “I knew what that meant.”

The good news was that by conducting the hysterectomy when they did, they removed everything before the cancer could spread.

“My doctor sat down and talked to me and told me I probably shouldn’t tell anybody,” Pope said. “So, I didn’t. My parents died without knowing. I didn’t want to be identified by it. I was still Lynn. I didn’t want to become Lynn who had sarcoma of the uterus.”

Only five years did she finally tell someone.

“It was when my friend was diagnosed with cancer that I came out of the closet, so to speak,” Pope said. “There was just no other reason for it to ever come up until I thought it might be able to help someone else.”

Pope’s cancer was gone and never did return, but it wouldn’t be the last time she had to stare it in the face.

Her family has been fighting the killer for as long as she can remember. She had great uncles die from cancer, an aunt who battled brain cancer and in 1990 — four years after her own diagnosis — Pope’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“My mother has been my greatest inspiration,” Pope said. “She was diagnosed six weeks after my father passed away. They were supposed to go on a trip to Hawaii and never did. So, before she began treatment, we went with my sisters.”

Pope helped care for her mother until she passed away, eight months after diagnosis.

Her husband, on the other hand, is a prostate cancer survivor.

Because of her experience, Pope knows how unforgiving cancer can be and how medicine and research can help.

For the past 15 years, she has been fighting back.

Pope said she tells everyone the importance of cutting cancer off at the root and going for annual tests. She also has been involved in the Relay for Life since 1995 to help raise money for cancer research.

“I’m not shy about helping raise money for cancer research,” Pope said. “Because I lived, I have a responsibility to help others going through this.”

To find out how you can join the fight against cancer, call Relay for Life at 493-7940.