By Jenny Neyman
May 19, 1999, was the worst day of Phyllis Swarner’s life, but also the day it changed for the best.
She was 52 years old, living in Florida, working for the civil service at Eglin Air Force Base. Life was going along just fine. Until it wasn’t.
“I got a phone call at 5 o’clock that morning that my dad had passed away,” she said. He had been sick. Even though it wasn’t entirely a surprise, the grief and sadness were more than enough to leave her reeling.
And yet, then came another call, at 9 a.m., with the results of her recent mammogram. It was merely a routine scan, as there was no history of breast cancer in her family. She felt fine. There was no reason to think anything would be found. But something was — a 2-centimeter lump in her left breast.
“So it was the day that my life changed,” she said.
Still, given her lack of risk factors, her doctor wasn’t overly concerned. It could be benign. Go to the funeral, deal with your dad’s death and we’ll do a biopsy when you get back, she was told. A month later when the biopsy was done, it showed the lump was cancer, and that there was infiltration into the lymph nodes.
“I found out not only was it cancer, but I had a second precancerous condition, as well,” she said.
“When you hear you’ve got cancer you think you’re dead. I don’t care what they say, you just think, ‘Start preparing for your will and your last days, because life’s over, period,’” she said.
But her life, in a way, had just begun again. In 1995 she had attended her 35th high school reunion and reconnected with her classmates from Fairbanks, where she’d begrudgingly spent her childhood.
“I’d hated Alaska growing up,” she said. “Fairbanks was so remote and cold, and I had roots in North Carolina. I was close to my grandparents there, so Fairbanks felt so far away from everyone and isolated at that time. And 50 and 60 below zero is cold weather. So I swore I’d go as far south as I could, and I did, I went to Florida.”
But she was finding herself more and more pulled back to Alaska, particularly to one classmate — Dennis Swarner, who had become an optometrist in Kenai.
“Dennis and I knew each other since the third grade. We have known each other forever. We graduated from high school together. And I’ve never been intimidated by the ‘Dr. Swarner’ part. He was that corny kid I had to put up with in third grade and he hasn’t changed since,” she joked.
But her feelings for him certainly did. They reconnected and stayed in touch. He came to Florida for a conference, looked her up, dropped by, and that was that.
“My life has never been the same since,” she said.
As if long-distance romances aren’t challenging enough, this was about as long a distance as the U.S. offers — Florida to Alaska. He had a practice in Kenai, and she wasn’t too keen on moving back north. Then came the cancer diagnosis and the years-long process of surgery and recovery. That could easily have spelled the end of the relationship. Instead, it was the beginning of Swarner’s new life trajectory.
“Pow, I had cancer, and that put everything in a different perspective,” she said.
She took a medical retirement from her job in order to focus on recovery. The cancer hadn’t spread beyond the lymph nodes, but her doctor warned that having her type of cancer on one side meant a likelihood of getting it on the other.
“He said, ‘We can watch this and just keep an eye on it or go ahead and take care of the problem.’ And I didn’t want to live my life with a time bomb,” she said.
Lymph nodes were removed along with her left breast. Reconstruction began at the same time, though it took a few years to complete. She was put on medication for five years, but didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. As difficult as the whole process was, it also brought the blessing of perspective — yes, cancer is awful, but her life beyond it was not. She had opportunities for love and adventure. All she had to do was embrace them.
The death of a loved one is a reminder that life is short. A cancer diagnosis on top of that only magnifies the point. So amid all the uncertainty and turmoil that cancer brings, Swarner decided to commit to what she knew she really wanted, and moved to Kenai in 2000.
“And since then I’ve learned to re-appreciate what I have in Alaska, and I love it now. You learn to love where you are in your life,” she said.
All her surgeries and continued yearly follow-ups still take place in Florida. She loves her new life in Alaska, but it was her doctors in Florida who gave her the ability to have that life.
“They’re just wonderful people. I wholeheartedly put myself where I am today because of them. That was what was so great about the surgical team I had in Florida, they weren’t going to let me go as a patient until I was happy. They wanted to give me my life back,” she said.
It’s now been 15 years since Swarner had her cancer diagnosis. Rather than seeing it as a stumbling block in her life, it’s the catapult that set her on her current happy trajectory. She loves her home and family. She’s involved in the community, particularly the Kenai Lions Club. And every spring she participates in the Central Peninsula Relay for Life, an overnight walk-a-thon fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. This year, as usual, she’ll be walking during the survivors’ lap of opening ceremonies Friday, and again for an hour at twilight when the luminaria are lit to honor people who have or are still fighting cancer.
Then she’ll be back bright and early Saturday with the Lions Club, also as usual, cooking breakfast for event participants.
“We should be bright and cheerful (in their yellow Lion’s Club Relay shirts) and look like the rising sun, let’s hope, that morning. We’ll look like a bunch of ducks if nothing else,” she said.
Cancer can feel very isolating — from one’s health, from their regular life, from their sense of control over their own fate. Relay is a way to celebrate the support from those determined to end the disease. For Swarner, Relay offers camaraderie with other cancer survivors — even though she doesn’t like considering herself a survivor, as though she’s just on pause from the disease. She’s done with it, she tells herself, and tells others to keep hope that they can be done with it, too.
“I’ve always been a Pollyanna, I think. I’ve always tried to have a positive side to things. I felt after all that I’d gone through with it, I felt like I didn’t have cancer anymore. I didn’t want it anymore. I ain’t going to do it anymore,” she said. “Hopefully I am able to go out and tell people there is a quality of life. Not just a life, but a quality of life, after you go through it. I tell people, ‘You can make this. OK, it’s not exactly like getting a tooth out, but you can make this, especially in this day and age.’”
This year’s Central Peninsula Relay for Life has 33 teams with 196 participants who organize fundraisers through Aug. 31 to raise money toward the $67,000 goal. So far they’re at a little over $25,000 raised, said Johna Beech, event chair. Upcoming events include a five-kilometer fun run/walk at Tsalteshi Trails on June 13, as well as a mud run June 21 at New Beginnings Fitness in North Kenai.
The two-day Relay, from 6 p.m. Friday to 2 p.m. Saturday, is both a fundraiser event as well as a celebration of all those who fight and support the fight against cancer.
“The biggest thing is the awareness. It’s fundraising for the American Cancer Society to fund their programs and to fund research for a cure. It’s hard for me to believe that no one has ever been touched by cancer. Everyone is one degree away. And so it’s about supporting the people who are going through the fight or supporting the families who have lost somebody. It’s just to rally as a community and put it into cancer. To finish the fight, which is this year’s theme,” Beech said.
The event is open to the public, whether or not they’re registered on a Relay team. It will be held at the Kenai Central High School track.
“The event has never been brought to Kenai so the hope for the future is to hold it one year in Kenai, the next year in Soldotna, to make it more of a community event,” Beech said.
Everyone is invited to come walk as many laps as they’d like, enjoy the free live music and participate in the many games, raffles, auctions and other fundraisers that will be held throughout the event — including an auction to determine whether a local volunteer, Ronnie Kier, who works at Main Street Tap and Grill in Kenai, will shave his bushy red beard. Make a donation and vote yes or no, and Kier will comply with the results at noon Saturday.
“His mother is voting for shave, by the way,” Beech said.
Opening ceremonies, including the survivors’ lap around the track, will be held at 6 p.m. Friday, followed by the annual survivors’ dinner. The luminaria will be lit at 10 p.m. The Lions’ breakfast will be served from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturday, with a pancake-eating contest at 7 a.m. Music includes Zach Daniels, Delana Duncan, Dave Edwards-Smith, Katie Mae and Mike Talent, Conner Larson, Chelsea Hart, Jessica Roper and friends, the Pepper Shakers and Troubadour North.
It’s designed to be a fun, festival affair, but it’s impossible to overlook the larger implication of the cause.
“I love the people that are involved. The outlook that the cancer survivors have is amazing. I believe in the mission of the American Cancer Society and fundraising for them to find a cure. Everything about it is good, good, good,” Beech said.
“There’s no reason why in this day and age people should have to worry about cancer, not with as much detection as is out there,” Swarner said. “I think we’re on the right track, and hopefully there’s a cure soon. I’m going to stick around to see. I have too much to do. It’s been quite a ride, and the best is yet to come.”