05/16/10 — Generations of courage

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Generations of courage

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 16, 2010 1:50 AM

News-Argus Video Report

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Libby McLamb reads a letter she wrote detailing the ordeal she and her daughter, Amy Cruse, center, went through when Amy was diagnosed with cancer nearly 20 years ago, as her granddaughter, Alexis, listens in.

Libby McLamb knows a mother has no choice but to be strong for days that stretch far beyond the one where she first hears a doctor say her little girl has cancer.

She has to soak in the screaming of a 16-year-old who, after having a tumor removed from just below her rib cage, is being told she must endure one "aggressive" round of chemotherapy after another.

She has to hold her own fear and sorrow in -- the "raw emotion" that often comes with a cancer battle.

But the courage that is necessary to fight the disease is something Libby knew of long before her daughter, Amy, was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma.

Coping with cancer has been a part of her life for more than 50 years.

But it took Libby making the decision to finally put into words the experience of losing so many loved ones to the disease -- her parents, uncles, cousins and, nearly, Amy -- for her daughter to realize that she, too, is a fighter.


Libby has been a survivor, of sorts, since she was 3 years old.

"My father, he died in August, and I turned 3 in September, so I don't remember him," she said. "At that time, there wasn't really anything they could do. I mean, he died in 1955. There just wasn't any type of treatment at all for it.

"It was very difficult. I would say, 'God, why did you take him? Why couldn't I have had a father like other children?' It was really devastating."

And when she was in her teens, more members of her family fell ill and succumbed to the disease.

"So when Amy got sick, I felt like maybe it was something I had passed down," Libby said. "I thought, 'My God. Had I passed this gene down to my children?'"

But she could never show it -- not when a phone call from a doctor revealed Amy would need surgery for an "aggressive" cancer.

"It was just pretty much cut and dry. They said, 'Well, we think your daughter has cancer. We want you in Greenville. She's scheduled for surgery.' That was pretty much it," Libby said. "I was just standing there, you know, with the phone, devastated. And she's looking at me and ... I knew I had to keep myself together."

But that wasn't going to be easy -- something she realized the first time her little girl took a needle in the back and cried out for the pain to end.

"They wanted to treat her brain just like it had cancer, so in order to do that, she would have to lay in the fetal position and they would take a long needle and go into her back and draw spinal fluid out," Libby said. "She would scream. ... It's a miracle that she's alive today."

Still, it wasn't until a few days after her surgery that Amy knew what she was up against.

Her mother had protected her from just what the knot near her stomach and the sharp pains might mean.

"All I knew was something wasn't right," Amy said.

"I tried to keep it from her," her mother replied. "I didn't want her to know."

But then Amy heard the word "chemotherapy."

"When I heard the word ... I kind of knew right then. I knew, 'I've got cancer,'" she said. "And when I thought about cancer, I thought, 'OK. You're going to die.' That's the first thing that comes into your mind."

But nearly 20 years later, Amy is cancer-free.

And in the time since, she, herself, has become a mother.

So when she heard Libby read what she wrote about her many battles, the daughter cried, understanding, at last, just how tough it must have been for a mother to watch a child endure so much.

"She never realized how hard it was for me," Libby said.

And she never realized that when Libby, herself, was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, she tried to live up to the courageous example her daughter set years before.

"I was very fortunate," Libby said. "I didn't have to go through any chemo and they were actually able to remove the tumor."

Still, her battle wasn't easy -- not with the knowledge that so many of her loved ones had lost theirs; not when the doctors informed her that they would have to perform a procedure akin to an open-heart surgery to remove the mass.

But Libby never complained.

Her daughter, she said, had given her perspective.

"I thought about Amy. She really had a really tough time," Libby said. "So I thought, if she could have gone through that, surely I could go through this."


As Wayne County's annual Relay for Life approaches -- the festivities are set to begin this week and culminate Friday with the relay itself -- Libby thinks about just how much the world of medicine, and the way cancer is approached, have changed.

Both Amy and Libby's lives now are, after all, a result of treatment that wasn't available during Libby's father's battle.

"When my father was diagnosed with leukemia, there was no treatment. There was no medicine. And now, they have come so far," Libby said. "We came in contact with so many people when (Amy) was going through chemo, and a lot of those kids didn't make it, so those of us who have had cancer and survived should do all we can, so that maybe that next generation of kids, they won't lose their lives."

And that is why this family will choose to relay this year.

They want to be the ones remaining strong -- as strong as Libby has tried to remain for all these years -- for those currently facing their own battles.

But don't be surprised if Libby lets her guard down if you stop by the APVCancer Crushers site Friday and ask about Amy.

As it turns out, she no longer feels the need to be strong for her daughter -- something she proved to herself by finally telling her story -- now that Amy has a family of her own.

"I wrote this so her children will know just how courageous she was," Libby said, looking back at Amy as she walked around Herman Park with her son and daughter. "She really is a miracle."