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HILLVIEW - Two hours. It was the amount of time the oncologist gave Rebecca Coy Gross to go home and kiss her children goodbye; the time that would lapse before she was put in isolation for chemotherapy. If she waited any longer, her doctor could not guarantee any chance of survival.
At age 24, Gross had been diagnosed with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APL), a subtype of acute leukemia with a specific, targeted therapy. For months, Gross had been in and out of physician offices, told she had ear infections, sinus infections, vertigo-until one doctor noticed her white blood cell count was so low, she sent her to an oncologist.
Gross spent the next six months in three rounds of aggressive chemotherapy treatment at Baptist Hospital East. For 30 days at a time, she stayed in an isolation ward, where her four-year old son and 10-month old daughter visited as often as they could.
“I missed them horribly,” she said. “I would go with them to sneak over into a room on the oncology floor with video games so they could play freely.”
The chemotherapy treatment and drugs given to Gross were experimental; she was the first person in Kentucky to receive the type of treatment she did. According to her, what now takes over a year to treat a cancer patient was given to her in a consolidated amount of time.
In May, Gross will celebrate 17 years of remission with no relapses. Her bone marrow, which she harvested 16 years ago because she did not have a match, is still in storage. She still lives with the side effects-Gross has an early stage of liver disease because of the chemotherapy.
“It’s not the greatest thing, but it’s given me 17 more years of life, so I’ll take it,” she said.
For years, Gross has been involved with various cancer support groups. She is a member of Friend For Life, which matches cancer patients with a survivor of their particular type of disease or treatment, and fundraises for the American Cancer Society. Most recently, she has started participating in Team In Training for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which trains walkers, runners, cyclists, swimmers, and hikers for various marathons and triathlons. Gross surpassed her goal of $1500 to raise $1684 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
On April 28, Gross and her team will walk in the Derby Festival Mini Marathon. Her personal goal is to walk each mile in under 15 minutes.
“It’s such a rewarding experience,” she said. “I can’t wait for the next one. I am so glad I decided to do it.”
Gross’s close friend, Rachel Bryant, recently decided to walk with her. Bryant’s husband is Gross’s cousin, but the two only became close after their daughters started Bullitt Central together.
“I felt like I would support her in this walk, because it’s a lot to do, and everyone needs a partner, a friend,” Bryant said.
After spending their lives caring for their children, Bryant said she is most excited to start a new chapter in life.
“You meet those people in life that make a difference and she is one of them,” she added. “We are looking forward to staying healthy and positive, and on a path that will allow us to give back to the world.”
About two weeks ago, Gross went to Hairplay Salon to shave her head. Since hair loss is something most cancer patients encounter and something women generally have a hard time accepting, Gross felt it was the ultimate end to her fundraising campaign.
“It reminds me of where I have been and how fair I have come,” she said. “For me, it’s just hair, and it doesn’t compare with life.”
Gross admits she went through a period when she didn’t want anyone to know she had cancer, because she didn’t want to be labeled or pitied.
“I wasn’t sorry I had it, it changed my life forever and taught me to appreciate the small things,” she said.
Her words began flowing faster and her voice raised in excitement as she described the many lessons cancer left her with.
“You learn to smell the flowers, go stand on the mountain, look out, and take things for all that they are,” she said. “I always say, ‘I don’t have anything, but I have everything.’”
After her battle with cancer, Gross noticed Bullitt County has no cancer support centers. Her goal is to open a nonprofit foundation and cancer center by the end of the year. Though nothing is concrete yet, she has been “in the preliminaries, doing things to prepare.” Gross wants to connect with others in the county who have thought about the need for a local center and hopes doctors will get involved as well.
“I want anyone with cancer to be able to come and have an abundance of information,” she said. “I want them to know they are not alone, because when you go through that, even though you are surrounded by people, it is a very lonely place.”
Gross plans on holding support groups and classes at the center, and-perhaps most importantly-she will direct cancer patients to the groups that have helped her, such as Friend For Life and Team in Training.
Each year, Gross celebrates two birthdays: the day she was diagnosed with APL, so she will always remember her battle, and her actual day of birth. On her diagnosis day, she always converses with her mother, who gave up several jobs to support Gross during chemotherapy.
In her daily life, Gross researches cancer groups, advances in cancer research, and new types of the disease. She calls it a “battle you never forget,” one that she never stops reading about, and one that she is always looking to help fight. Eventually, Gross wants to travel overseas to study other nations’ cancer treatment options and bring new information back to the U.S.
When asked if there were any major goals and lifestyle changes she has made since remission, Gross simply replied, “I’m doing it now. I’m trying to make a difference.”