PROFILE: Cancer Survivor Encourages Participation in Relay for Life

Her battle with cancer was once such a private matter that Diane Lewis couldn’t bring herself to tell her own children about it. Now she proudly proclaims in front of a crowd at a cancer awareness rally, “I’m a survivor!”

Lewis, director of organizational performance for Administrative and Business Services, attended the rally to promote UC’s participation in the Relay for Life, a fund-raiser that hopes to generate at least $25,000 for the American Cancer Society. The relay begins at

6 p.m. Friday, April 18

, and runs until

noon Saturday, April 19

, on Sigma Sigma Commons.

Now 45, Lewis learned she had breast cancer at age 37. She had gone to the doctor for a routine check-up and asked him if she should start getting mammograms. “I had heard that African American women should have a baseline done before 40, because they run a higher risk of getting breast cancer. I thought it might be a good time to start having it done. I had no family history, but I thought it would be a good idea.”

Her timing proved to be life-saving. She received a certified letter shortly after her first mammogram informing her that additional testing was required at the Barrett Cancer Center. Lewis was scheduled for a biopsy, which proved she had malignancies.  “It was pre-Stage 1. If you’re going to get cancer, that’s the best kind to have.”

Through her own trials, the cancer survivor has learned that cancer does not necessarily equal death, especially if caught early. But that’s not what she believed at first. “I didn’t think I’d ever see 40 or see my kids go to high school. You think it’s a death sentence. That’s the first thing that runs through your mind,” says Lewis, who has worked at UC for nearly 24 years.

When she first learned she had cancer, Lewis wanted to postpone her surgery for a few months and wait until the December winter break. “But the doctor said no, you don’t get it. You have to have surgery right away.” She asked her physician if she could postpone until after her birthday, which was Oct. 14. The doctor finally agreed. She scheduled her surgery for the Monday directly following her birthday celebration.

As she awaited the operation, Lewis says she asked God to give her “perfect peace, just allow me to have peace with it.” The morning she went to the hospital, as she walked outside in the pre-dawn darkness, she looked up at the sky. “The starts were bright and beautiful. It felt like a fairy tale day. I felt perfect peace,” she recalls.

On the advice of her grandfather, she tried to keep a smile on her face and remain optimistic. Nurses and family members claim that the first thing Diane said when she woke up after surgery was, “Tell my grandfather I’m still smiling.” She now says: “I really believe the Lord made it OK.” Afterward, she did not even require follow-up chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Despite her recovery, it still wasn’t easy to talk about her cancer, even to her children, who were just 12 and 8 at the time. “Now I can share my story very easily. If there’s something I can say that will make other women consider having a mammogram, than my message has gotten through. Early detection is so important,” she stresses.

To spread the word even further, she helps organize an annual breast cancer awareness workshop at her church, complete with a display on prosthetic devices and breast models to check for lumps. She participates in the Fox 19 Buddy Check program, which encourages women to do self breast exams on the 19th of every month, and she often walks in the Making Strides for Cancer walk in the fall.

Ever since her first mammogram, Lewis’ birthday in October has become a special milestone for her. Right around that date, she makes sure to have an annual mammogram. “On my birthday, I’m really celebrating another year of life,” she says.

Lewis encourages all students, staff and faculty to support the American Cancer Society by organizing a team to participate in the April Relay for Life at UC. For more information on how to participate in Relay for Life, check the Center for Community Engagement Web site or e-mail Chelsey Schneider, at the American Cancer Society.

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