Leading from the front

Published 4:06 pm Saturday, April 9, 2011

Debra Pruyne, with her husband Jerry, is a cancer survivor who helps lead the Sentara Obici Hospital cancer support group. Pruyne overcame non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the 1990s and now is battling thyroid cancer.

Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories leading up to the Suffolk Rockin’ Relay for Life, to be held May 13-14.

Debra Pruyne knows what it’s like to fight cancer.

She beat Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma into remission in 1995, and now is in the midst of a new battle with thyroid cancer.

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But she’s not letting her determination affect just her cancer. She serves as the co-facilitator of the cancer support group at Sentara Obici Hospital so she can share her expertise on the subject of fighting cancer with everyone.

Pruyne worked at the old Obici Hospital when she was diagnosed.

“I had the cancer, but did not know it,” she said. “I was always tired, just run down.”

Pruyne dropped six pants sizes without trying. She could feel the walnut-size inflammations in her neck, underarms and groin.

After being dismissed by her doctor several times, she confronted him when he came to the hospital to visit another patient. He finally ordered a biopsy.

“That’s when he told me I was a sick girl,” Pruyne said.

The doctors put Pruyne through 12 treatments of CHOP, a megadose of chemotherapy designed for lymphoma.

“It was a horrible ordeal,” Pruyne said. “It was just unbearable pain. Most of the time, I could not pick my head up off the couch.”

Despite the pain, Pruyne said the worst part was losing her hair, because she was afraid her granddaughter would be scared of her.

“I knew that would just kill me,” she said. However, her granddaughter took it well.

“She told me I should go to her doctor because that doesn’t happen when she goes to her doctor,” Pruyne recalled, laughing.

After her cancer went into remission and her recovery began, Pruyne found strength in the cancer support group.

“It gives me something more to focus on other than myself,” Pruyne said. “You’re able to talk to someone else that has the same disease.”

Eventually, Pruyne took over as the co-facilitator of the group. She and facilitator Kay Culpepper provide a safe, confidential place for survivors and caregivers to meet, ask questions, discuss symptoms, share stories, learn coping mechanisms and more.

Pruyne’s husband Jerry said the support group helped his wife find the strength to leave the house again after periods of isolation ordered during her treatment.

“She felt so safe in the house,” Jerry Pruyne said. “You’re very susceptible to any infection. The members of the support group helped her get out of the house.”

Pruyne now volunteers at the cancer office at the hospital, along with helping to lead the group.

“It’s a scary, nasty, hateful disease,” Pruyne said.

You can help fight cancer by getting involved in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, to be held May 13-14 at Bennett’s Creek Park. For more information, visit www.suffolkrockinrelay.org.