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When she learned about an opportunity to meet the pandas in China, Valerie Frazier didn’t waste time making a decision. She’s like that now that she has been diagnosed with cancer.
By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, email@example.com
In a matter of a few short months Valerie Frazier lost her father and mother and was diagnosed with low-grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).
It showed her exactly what she’d always heard: “Life can change in a minute.”
A resident of Martinsville, Frazier married her husband Jeff in 1993. They have two adult daughters and two granddaughters. In January of 2008 after suffering abdominal pain and swollen glands she went to the doctor. A colonoscopy followed and revealed she has NHL. In March her father passed of complications from metastatic adenocarcinoma, and the day after her birthday in August, her mother passed of what Frazier says was a “broken heart.”
Her mother had spent time caring for her father and had missed signs of her own poor health.
From 2008-2018 Frazier went through the watchful waiting period that can typically be from 10 to 20 years for patients with NHL. For a slow-growing lymphoma some patients spend time under their doctor’s surveillance with additional testing completed to determine the best course of treatment.
“Since they actually traced my symptoms back to my 20s when it was diagnosed as something else, the waiting period was short,” said Frazier. Within three years the symptoms became more evident. At the time she was in the care of another hospital and was treated three times with chemotherapy.
When she met IU Health hematologist/oncologist Dr. Jose Azar, Frazier said everything about her diagnosis and treatment changed. It was during a public speaking engagement that she met Dr. Azar and watched him interact with patients in his audience.
“I was anxious to hear what he had to say because he specializes in slow growing lymphoma. After hearing him talk I told him a two-second snippet of my story and he looked into my eyes and said ‘we don’t know what will happen to you. You shouldn’t have been diagnosed in your late 20s because most people are diagnosed in their 60s.’” His honesty with Frazier was exactly what she needed to hear.
“I wasn’t looking for guarantees but someone to be honest. We don’t know what my future holds. The way he took the time to talk to every person who had a question confirmed everything I had heard about him. He truly treats each patient like an individual,” said Frazier.
In July she became Dr. Azar’s patient.
“He looked at all my past scans and was ready to put a plan in place. He wanted to know right away – ‘is their something we should do differently,’’’ said Frazier.
It was a welcome relief for her and also a lot to take in.
It was 2008 when she first got her diagnosis. In 2011, a second colonoscopy confirmed her disease had progressed. The following year she had four weeks of antibody therapy. By the end of the treatments she still wasn’t feeling much better. In 2013 she started chemotherapy - six treatments once a month.
“This was incredibly hard on my body. I only ended up having 5 - I was unable to take the 6th treatment,” said Frazier. “My doctor at the time decided it was doing more harm than good and was satisfied with the progress I had made.” In November of 2013 she began to pick up numerous infections. She learned her white blood count continued to drop and she was unable to fight off infections. She began giving herself injections to boost her immune system but still landed in the hospital. A bone marrow biopsy followed to determine why her body wasn’t producing white blood cells.
“I had three bags of antibiotics running 24/7 and more Neupogen shots. We made up a superhero called ‘Neutropenia Girl’ and I even had a cape,” said Frazier. Neupogen is a drug used to stimulate the growth of white blood cells. By 2014 she began feeling better and was on a maintenance chemo. She finished her last treatment in August and had an opportunity to travel to China to volunteer caring for pandas.
“I love pandas and when I learned of the opportunity I told my husband, ‘I’m not going to wait until one day. That day is now,’” said Frazier. So she traveled more than 7,000 miles and spent two weeks loving on pandas.
“That was a springboard for me. I knew it was now or never and I began to embrace every day, every opportunity,” said Frazier. She became a Zumba instructor, hiked the Appalachian Trail, attended a hippie festival, and began counting down marathons – she’s participated in 16.
She experienced her first chemo-free year in 2017 and is considered in remission. As a member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society advisory board Frazier spends time advocating for other patients – helping them find the resources they need. She is also active with the American Cancer Society Relay for Life Leadership Team and Voices of Hope.
She also speaks out about her own experiences.
“My personal mantra is ‘the only thing worse than cancer is regret,’” said Frazier.
“I try to be an example of how you can live with cancer, and I mean truly live,” said Frazier. “Do the things you want to do because tomorrow is never guaranteed.”