A Van Buren woman and two-times cancer survivor is a source of hope and inspiration for others dealing with the devastating effects of the disease.
When diagnosed with atypical carcinoid of the lung, a type of lung cancer that is rare because it exists on the outside of the lung, in April 2010, Melinda Bigelow said she was surprised.
"I never smoked, so I never expected to have lung cancer," Bigelow said.
After having a pain under her right collar bone, a friend convinced Bigelow into visiting her doctor. When a computed tomography (CT) scan showed a large mass in the area, Bigelow’s first thought was, "I’m not that sick."
But she was that sick; even sicker, in fact. Tissue samples from a surgery April 6, 2010, confirmed that the tumor was malignant.
The next day, Bigelow’s 58th birthday, though the family had been told the seriousness of Bigelow’s condition, she was still in the dark.
Bigelow’s daughter Brooke Loe had decorated the room she moved into from the intensive care unit with flowers and balloons. When the surgeon entered, he was stunned by the celebration taking place.
As she lay in her bed, in pain from the 13-inch incision he had made, the surgeon told Bigelow the news.
"His words were, ‘I’m sorry, it’s too late. There’s nothing we can do,’" Bigelow said.
But Bigelow didn’t accept it. With her oncologist, Daniel Mackey in Fort Smith, Bigelow made a decision to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
In Rochester, six doctors told her that with radiation and chemotherapy, she could extend her life seven to 10 years.
It was lucky number seven, surgeon Dennis Wigle, who Bigelow now calls her "hero." Wigle told her he was confident that he could remove all of her cancer.
During a complicated procedure on April 30, Wigle removed all of the cancerous tumor that had wrapped itself around her pulmonary artery and bronchus.
A nerve on Bigelow’s left vocal chord was nicked, causing paralysis, but Bigelow said she’s "not complaining."
Bigelow was fine for two years, but a recurrence of the carcinoid forced her to go in for another removal surgery by Wigle Nov. 2, 2012. She is currently cancer free.
"My first fear when I was diagnosed was that I would die before my grandchildren realized they had someone who loved them so much," Bigelow said. "I prayed that God would give me extra time with them."
Her prayer was granted, and now Bigelow looks to help others through her experience. After putting the outcome in God’s Hands, she made up her mind that "every day would be great," she said.
Now Bigelow works to help support cancer research through the American Cancer Society, which is funded in part by Relay For Life events across the U.S.
This year Bigelow was chosen as the Crawford County Relay For Life "Hero For Hope," and will tell her story before leading the survivor’s lap at the beginning of the relay, held this year at the Alma Intermediate School track June 14-15 from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
"I chose her because she has such a unique story to tell," Rhonda Lyle, coordinator for the CCRFL, said of Bigelow. "She was determined not to give up; she was determined to live."
Lyle also chose Bigelow because she can speak personally about some of the services the American Cancer Society offers to cancer patients using, in part, money raised from Relay For Life, such as the Hope Lodge.
Hope Lodge, with locations nationwide, provides free lodging for cancer patients and their caregivers through the sale of luminaries and other fundraisers.
Bigelow and her husband, Rodney, stayed in a Hope Lodge in Rochester for more than two months while she underwent her surgery and recovery, along with 60 other cancer survivors and their caregivers, she said.
"It was truly a place of joy and comradely," Bigelow said. "We came in as strangers and we left as family."
The couple continue to stay in touch with some of those they met during their stay, Bigelow said.
Others, such as Donna Rogers, serve with Bigelow in civic groups such as the Women’s League of Crawford County, where they chaired the group’s 2013 relay team.
Rogers was amazed after learning Bigelow’s story, and how she and her family handled the issue of her cancer.
"Seeing how their faith is, what their beliefs are and the closeness of the family….just seeing how they dealt with it" was an inspiration, Rogers said.
Bigelow admits that not every part of every day is great, but through her faith and with the help and support of her family, friends and the community, she is able to be an inspiration for others.
"People get bad news all the time, but it’s how you deal with it," Rogers said.
Rogers’ mother-in-law is a two-year cancer survivor, and her mother is currently going through a mastectomy because of breast cancer, she said. Seeing how Bigelow remained strong in the face of such adversity helps Rogers stay strong for the women in her life, she said.
"Even if you’ve got someone in your family with cancer, just hearing her story and what she’s been through just gives you hope," Rogers said.
"That’s what it’s about - having hope," Rogers said. "Hope that you can beat it."