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‘Let’s get rid of it,’ cancer survivor says after six surgeries

Eloise Orr is kindergarten teacher who has had six cases cancer survived. Tuesday January 22 2013 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Eloise Orr is a kindergarten teacher who has had six cases of cancer and survived. Tuesday, January 22, 2013 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:06AM

At 31, kindergarten teacher Eloise Orr has overcome not one but six bouts of cancer.

Yet, instead of being scared or angry each time another was found, Orr was more annoyed than anything else.

“Every time, I never felt my life was in danger,” Orr said. “I’m just a practical person in general, and cancer always came up at an inconvenient time.”

Having to get cancer treatments often coincided with things like a trip abroad, her graduation from college or her plan to move from Florida back to Chicago.

“I just said, ‘Let’s fix it. Let’s get rid of it,’” Orr said.

So she could get on with her life.

Orr was 20 years old when she found the first cancer — ductal carcinoma in situ — in her right breast. At the time, she was nearing the end of her junior year at University of Illinois, getting ready to spend a semester in Spain.

In April 2002, she woke up one night when she felt a dampness after scratching her right breast. She went to the bathroom to find a drop of liquid hanging from her right nipple. When she squeezed it, discharge shot out.

“I freaked out, because I remembered that’s what happened to [my mother],” Orr said.

Her mother, Yvonne “Sookie” Landry-Orr, died of breast cancer in 1987 at age 35. Orr was 5 at the time.

At the University of Chicago Medicine — where Orr was diagnosed and works with a team of cancer treatment doctors — she was given the choice of either mastectomy or lumpectomy with radiation.

With a mastectomy, all breast tissue is removed. A lumpectomy, meanwhile, removes the tumor and a small amount of surrounding normal tissue. Radiation kills cancer cells after a tumor has been removed.

Orr went with the mastectomy because it would be quicker and because she thought it would prevent another cancer from occurring.

“Plus there was an added bonus: I was a 38-G at the time of my operation, so I was happy to trade in the huge boobs for a smaller size that would finally allow me to buy cute bras and panties that matched,” she joked.

Orr had the operation in May 2002 and did end up going to Spain.

But another cancer was found in 2003. Despite the double mastectomy and despite having a type of cancer that usually doesn’t spread, Orr’s cancer went from the duct of her right breast to the lymph nodes in her right armpit.

She had the positive lymph nodes removed.

Then in December 2004, Orr learned that her now-metastatic Stage 4 breast cancer had spread to her brain. A tumor the size of a golf ball sitting on Orr’s cerebellum caused painful headaches, nausea and inability to keep food down.

That tumor was removed, but doctors found a smaller one on the right side frontal lobe.

And after that was eventually removed, more malignant tumors kept popping up in Orr’s brain sporadically every year for the next three years.

Orr was only 25 years old. Dr. Maciej Lesniak, who performed Orr’s last brain surgery, was convinced: “If this tumor kept coming, it would kill her.”

So Lesniak, director of neurosurgical oncology at the University of Chicago Medicine, tried what was considered a non-traditional treatment for a metastatic brain tumor. The five-hour surgery involved putting what are called Gliadel Wafers into her brain, allowing them to gradually release doses of chemotherapy onto the tumor site.

So far, it appears to have worked. Orr has been cancer-free since 2007.

“Every breast cancer patient will tell you there’s always a risk of recurrence, but so far, her quality of life is great,” said Dr. Olufunmilayo I. Olopade, who has been her primary oncologist since 2002.

Good estimates for how often cancer patients have recurrences like Orr are hard to come by. But Olopade, director of the Cancer Risk Clinic at University of Chicago Medicine, said, “It’s not common, but ... it can happen.”

The U. of C. doctors who worked with Orr, including Olopade and Lesniak, credited Orr’s resilience and optimism for being able to overcome as much as she has.

“The thing about Eloise is that she has this wonderful spirit,” Lesniak said. “She was always in control.”

Orr said it wasn’t until she went through all of this that she realized she was as strong as she is.

“My mother was the same way. [Cancer] wasn’t going to stop her from doing whatever she had planned to do,” Orr recalled.

And Orr said she talks to God and her mother often.

“She’s my guardian angel,” Orr said, of Landry-Orr.

Orr’s cancer is estrogen receptor-positive, meaning it grows or spreads when stimulated by estrogen. So Orr has to take lupron injections every three months to shut down production of estrogen in her ovaries. She also takes a drug to stop any cancer that her adrenal glands might produce, and a drug for bone density to prevent getting osteoporosis because lupron put her in early menopause.

In addition, Orr has to go to her oncologist every three months, her neurologist every year and to get multiple MRI and other scans to make sure she is still cancer-free.

Her financial health is still a work in progress. Orr had to declare bankruptcy in 2005, because she was well over $100,000 in medical debt after her father’s insurance dropped her when she was 22. She eventually got Medicaid when her brain condition worsened, and now she has Blue Cross Blue Shield with her current job working for a Chicago Public School. But Orr can’t go off bankruptcy yet, which means her dad usually has to co-sign for her.

And though she has insurance now, Orr said she still ends up paying about $200 a month out of pocket for doctor visits, scans and other medical needs.

Otherwise, she says she’s just a typical 31-year-old who loves movies and spending time with her family. She is single, and she admits that she’s nervous about telling a guy what she’s been through or showing him her scars from surgery.

Still, Orr is looking forward to having children, though Olopade warns that pregnancy would not be without risk, because it would increase Orr’s estrogen.

In the meantime, Orr said “my babies,” her nickname for her students at McKay Elementary School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, keep her in good spirits.

Her advice for cancer patients is simple.

“I just always want to encourage people to be positive, because I really feel that it is a big part of why I’m still alive.

“I never was afraid that I was going to die,” Orr said. “There’s no giving up until it’s over.”

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