It's hard to believe the vivacious Judie Beard Ham has had cancer five times. She tells her story with such energy and wit, it is clear her sense of humor helps her endure.
At 63, Ham has been tied to Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) in more ways than one, beginning in 1989 with her work as a research coordinator in Dana-Farber's Population Sciences Department. She was engaged in breast cancer research in 1993 when her own mammogram showed a small tumor in one breast.
"I felt fortunate to be working here," she says, "because I understood this cancer, knew the experts, and was relieved it had been caught early."
However, it wasn't as simple as she had hoped. Some longstanding calcifications in the other breast also turned out to be cancer, and she underwent several surgeries and radiation at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), Dana-Farber's partner in adult cancer care.
Five months later, Ham experienced bowel irregularities and noticed blood in her stool. Diagnosed with colon cancer - which involved a large tumor that spread to several lymph nodes - she underwent surgery with Roger Christian, MD, the same general surgeon who had operated on her breasts, and had a year of chemotherapy. "I don't like missing out on anything," she jokes.
Although she says the later-stage colon cancer took a greater physical and emotional toll than did the two early-stage breast cancers, she continued to work, preferring to be engrossed in something other than her illness. And her sense of humor remained intact. "I've always struggled with my weight, and I was nice and slim during this time," she says. "Whenever friends would say, 'You look great!' I'd reply, 'Cancer agrees with me.'"
Thanks to her family, Ham, who had always focused on others, learned to care for herself as well. "Just before my colon cancer surgery and 49th birthday," she recalls, "my daughter called and said, 'Mom, block off five hours and don't wear any makeup.' She took me for my first visit to a spa. That night, my husband took me out for a special dinner. I used to be all about the kids, my work, and the house, but my cancer taught me to be good to myself, too."
After she recovered, Ham strengthened her ties with DF/BWCC in several ways. Because colon and breast cancers increase the risk for subsequent malignancies in the liver, ovaries, or uterus, she sought counseling and care through the Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program.
Ham remained cancer-free for 13 eventful years, in which she changed jobs to work at the Veterans' Administration Hospital, got divorced, became a One to One volunteer at Dana-Farber (offering telephone support and camaraderie to other cancer patients), joined the brand-new Adult Patient and Family Advisory Council, helped launch the Side by Side newsletter for patients and families, and remarried.
In the midst of moving to a condominium in 2006 with her new husband, Ham experienced a sore throat. Diagnosis? Thyroid cancer. Unbelievably, as she prepared for surgery once again at BWH, her oncologist discovered a small lump under a scar from the 1992 breast surgery. It turned out to be invasive ductal breast cancer: Five cancers in 14 years.
Ever in charge, Ham persuaded her surgeons — Christian and Atul Guwande, MD — to perform the operations back-to-back so she would have anesthesia only once. Her breast and thyroid gland were removed. Since then, Ham's very active lifestyle has been curtailed because of such subsequent problems as lymphedema and arthritis. She works three days a week, leaving Mondays and Fridays to manage her health care and tend to her family.
"Judie has always made herself available to others, by participating in research or offering support," says Judy Garber, MD, her physician in the Risk and Prevention Clinic. "I don't know where she gets her energy, but having cancer five times has done nothing to diminish it. She gets the most out of every day."
Today, when Judie Ham advises cancer patients, families, and survivors to be hopeful, the words seem like gold nuggets as they spill from someone with so many setbacks. "I once thought I'd never see my kids graduate from college, and here I am, happily remarried and a grandma," she boasts. "Never say never."
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