Thrive by IU Health

June 02, 2021

Married 46 years, they call themselves ‘the cancer couple’

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Married 46 years, they call themselves ‘the cancer couple’

They met when they were students at Indiana University, married, and enjoyed a life traveling. Now in their retirement years, Lon and Ranita McMurtrey are fighting cancer together. February 4th is World Cancer Day – a day to inform and encourage people on early prevention, detection, and treatment.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

She grew up in Northern Indiana; he was raised in Southern Indiana. They met once at church when Ranita McMurtrey came to visit her grandparents in Lon McMurtrey’s hometown of Washington, Ind. Lon used to deliver the newspaper to Ranita’s grandparent’s home. But several years passed before they made a real connection.

When Lon was a sophomore at Indiana University and Ranita started her freshman year, their paths crossed again in the university’s business library.

And that is where their love story began.

Ranita was engaged to someone else. Lon took her home to meet his family for the weekend, she broke off the engagement, dropped out of school and began planning to marry the man she calls her “best friend.”

Ranita says: “Lon’s my first choice when it comes to doing something with someone.” Lon says: “We’re pretty much joined at the hip.”

Wedding Photo with Ranita and Lon

What made their heads turn during that library meeting? “We just felt like we’d known each other forever, like we are kindred spirits,” said Lon, 67. They were married Jan. 11, 1975. Lon took a job at a bank in Corydon, Ind. and moved his bride to a town she’d never before visited. They bought their first home, paying off a mortgage at $99 a month, and Ranita took a job at an ice cream shop.

It was the first of several moves. Lon’s career took him into credit and risk management for a meat packing business and they eventually moved to Kentucky. He also managed a computer business, and worked for a grain-wet miller; Ranita worked in various law offices. Their next home was in Iowa and then Wisconsin. Sometimes they didn’t know anyone else in their community – just each other.

After 10 years in Wisconsin, they returned to Washington, Ind. to care for their ailing parents.

Back in Southern Indiana, they bought what they called, “The worst house on the block.” It was two-story 1910 fixer-upper, with an attic filled with antiques. They renovated it more than once – all 3,600-square-feet – including five bedrooms. It was the perfect home to shelter foster children. Never having their own children, the McMurtrey’s helped raise 29 foster children throughout their lives – mostly teens.

When they weren’t caring for foster children, they were traveling – visiting national parks and skiing in the mountains. At one point they thought about moving to Colorado to be closer to the snow.

Their health was good and they enjoyed life.

In 2011, they had their first brush with cancer. Lon was treated for a patch of melanoma on his leg. For years he had a clean bill of health. Then in December of 2018, as he was preparing to retire, he decided to get a thorough check up. A former smoker, he requested a lung scan. A spot was discovered on his lungs. More testing followed and Lon became a patient of IU Health Dr. Harold Longe, specializing in hematology.

“I had read a lot about metastatic melanoma and I was scared. I didn’t want to go through surgery or chemotherapy. When I first met Dr. Longe and he gave me the diagnosis he said, ‘stop reading,’” said Lon. “He pulled up his computer and sort of smiled and said, ‘you have Stage four melanoma and surgery and chemotherapy won’t work but we can take care of this,’” said Lon.

It was around 5:00 in the evening when Lon received the news. Lon remembers Dr. Longe walking him and Ranita down the hallway of IU Health Methodist Hospital and introducing them to the infusion team.

“It was like they gathered around us and said, ‘we’ve got you now. Don’t worry,” said Lon. He began immunotherapy and after six infusions a scan showed the tumor had shrunk 85 percent.

“When Dr. Longe showed me the results I gave him a big hug and looked him in the eye and said, ‘I bet you live for days like this. He looked back and said, ‘yes I do,’” said Lon.

Last February, the McMurtreys downsized from their “family home.” They packed up their 5-year-old rescue dog, “Josie,” and moved into a corner ranch in a neighborhood in Bloomington. Until recently, Lon continued to drive to Indianapolis every three weeks for his infusion treatments. He now goes to the IU Health Olcott Center in Bloomington where he is in the care of Dr. Mark Dayton.

“I am happy with Dr. Dayton but I hated to leave Methodist and Dr. Longe. He is a humanist and you can tell he truly cares for his patients,” said Lon.

About the time they were planning a move to Bloomington, Ranita, 66, discovered a lump in her right breast. She went for regular mammograms all of her adult life. In May she learned she had breast cancer. On July 1, she was in the pre-op area for surgery when her surgeon, IU Health’s Dr. Fadi Haddad, felt like something wasn’t quite right. The only way Ranita could describe it was, “a flutter in her heart.” She thought it was nerves, but her surgical team quickly moved her to the cardio unit. A trans esophageal echocardiography (TEE) showed she had a blood clot in her heart. She was put on medication and her breast surgery was postponed. As she waited for surgery Ranita was in the care of IU Health Oncologist Dr. Jacqueline Joyce, who prescribed medication to slow the growth of the tumor.

“I look back at the fact that they discovered a heart problem when I was preparing for breast surgery and it just shows how Dr. Haddad was in tune to his patient’s body,” said Ranita.

On October 16th, 2020 Ranita had a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. She began chemotherapy on November 16 at the IU Health Olcott Center in Bloomington – the same place her husband receives his infusion treatments.

In a recent video the couple made expressing their gratitude to IU Health, Ranita, who once had hair down her back, removed a scarf from her head and said: “Bald is beautiful.” Together they introduced themselves as “The Cancer Couple.”

Even though their lives have slowed down, they enjoy warm days sitting in their sunroom and dining on take out from Bloomington restaurants.

“All that stuff in the big house was just stuff. It doesn’t mean diddly when you’re at this stage,” said Ranita. “The whole cancer thing has made things better in a lot of ways,” added Lon. “You value what you have. I think our quality of life has improved because we are more expressive reaching out to people and letting them know we care, and we always have each other.”

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