2014-07-25 / Community

Woman’s tale one of many inspirations during ‘Tri’

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


South Portland resident Betsey Cummings is with math teacher Emily Stevens, also of South Portland, who ran last weekend’s Tri for a Cure triathlon in her honor. Cummings, who works as a library clerk at Brown Elementary School, was diagnosed last fall with a rare form of lung cancer, after it had already spread to her brain. A test in May found two additional bone tumors. However, a PET scan performed the day after the triathlon found no trace of the disease. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland resident Betsey Cummings is with math teacher Emily Stevens, also of South Portland, who ran last weekend’s Tri for a Cure triathlon in her honor. Cummings, who works as a library clerk at Brown Elementary School, was diagnosed last fall with a rare form of lung cancer, after it had already spread to her brain. A test in May found two additional bone tumors. However, a PET scan performed the day after the triathlon found no trace of the disease. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Sometimes, miracles do happen.

And a miracle, is seems, is just what Betsey Cummings needed. A native of Bryant Pond, Cummings has lived in South Portland for 25 years, having raised both of her children in the city. For the past five years, she’s worked as a library tech at Brown Elementary School. Fostering a love of reading in youngsters is work she cherishes, but late last fall she took the uncharacteristic action of calling out sick.

Dizziness and nausea led her to suspect a bad sinus infection, but visits with five doctors over two weeks proved otherwise. What was causing her illness was a mystery. Then, in early December, a sudden onslaught of extreme vertigo changed Cummings life forever – as the world turned upside down, so did her world. A harried ambulance ride later, Cummings had her diagnosis – a brain tumor.

Taken in for emergency surgery, Cummings got lucky. Surgeons were able to remove all of the tumorous tissue. However, they discovered the mass was cancerous. Worse, it has metastasized from another location. Cummings had Stage 4 lung cancer.

On Sunday, as the final finishers crossed the line at the seventh annual Tri for a Cure triathlon, held to raise money and awareness for cancer research, Cummings reflected on her ordeal.

“I woke up from the brain surgery and I was so happy that I finally felt like myself again,” she said. “But then they came in and said ‘cancer.’ They said it. I couldn’t say ‘cancer’ myself for two weeks. I was just shocked and devastated.”

Support from the community has been “amazing,” Cummings said. Students from Brown sent her cards, letters and handmade books. Parents, peers and friends stopped by to visit, bearing flowers, more cards and meals. But, still, there was a certain stigma that hung in the air.

“No one really likes to support lung cancer,” said Cummings’ daughter, Carly. “They think, OK, you must have smoked, you did it to yourself. But even for those people who did smoke, it’s just a really horrible thing to be told you don’t have any options. The statistics are horrible.”

Once rare among women, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer in 1987 to become the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. Today, one in four cancer deaths in American women is due to lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Institute. The fiveyear survival rate, once the cancer has metastasized, is just 4 percent

However, one in five women who develop the disease are, like Cummings, nonsmokers. As it turns out, Cummings has a rare form of lung cancer – a chromosome inversion of the anaplastic lymphoma kinase enzyme, also known as an ALK rearrangement, which is at the root of just 3 percent of all non-small cell lung cancers.

The American Cancer Institute notes that victims of ALK rearrangement are almost exclusively nonsmokers. The median age at diagnosis is 52, exactly how old Cummings is this year.

For Cummings, seven weeks of radiation treatment was followed by four rounds of chemotherapy at New England Cancer Specialists in Scarborough. She’s also been to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. For the past seven weeks she’s been taking a new oral medication, a kind of targeted therapy that replaces traditional intravenous chemo treatments. The body quickly builds up immunity to the new drug, however, and Cummings will soon switch to an even newer version, just approved by the Food and Drug Administration in March. The aggressive treatment stems from tests done in May, which show that Cumming’s cancer has moved into her bones, her pelvis and back.

Cummings’ medications cost $14,000 per month. Thanks to insurance, she’s only had to pay $40 per month out of pocket. Thanks also, for friends and family.

“The community as been so supportive,” Cummings said. “It means a lot. It’s really been overwhelming. I don’t know how I would have got through this winter without all of that.

“The last two rounds of chemo was rough. The radiation was rough,” she said. “All of last spring was really rough.”

Support has come not just in the form of cards displays and casserole dishes, but also tributes. On June 12, nine of Cummings colleagues ran or walked in a Maine Cancer Foundation 5K fundraiser.

On Sunday, another of Cumming’s co-workers ran in her honor. Emily Stevens, 26, teaches gifted math students at Small School and both South Portland middle schools. As a friend of Cummings’ daughter, Stevens practically grew up in the Cummings home, located a short walk from the high school. She’s run the Tri for a Cure twice before, but as a tribute to a great uncle who died of cancer. This is the first time she’s run for someone living with the disease.

“My extra inspiration this year was running to support Betsey. She’s been such a huge part of my life growing up,” said Stevens, not long after completing the course in one hour, 43 minutes, good for 27th place in her 25-29 age group.

“The Tri For a Cure is just such a great concept and a great event,” Stevens said. “I love how everything goes to the Maine Caner Foundation and stays right in the state, not just for cancer research, but also for support and educational programs.”

“It means so much to me,” said Cummings, of Stevens’ run. “I think the more we can get out about lung cancer, the better, especially with such a stigma about it because of smoking.”

More than 1,400 women participated in this year’s Tri For a Cure, sponsored again by WEX Inc. Included were nearly 200 cancer survivors, who started off the event at Spring Point Light bedecked in bright pink swimming caps. The annual female-only event starts and finishes at the Southern Maine Community College campus and features a one-third-mile swim, a 16.5-mile bike ride through South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, and a 3.1- mile run to Bug Light and back.

According to a release issued Tuesday by the Maine Cancer Foundation, this year’s event raised $1.37 million.

Stevens said she logged her best time yet on the run and bike legs, but the swim was particularly hard this year.

“The water was so amazingly cold,” she said, with a shiver.

Meanwhile, Cummings lingers on her prognosis.

“It’s been a hard thing to hear,” she said, admitting that she’s begun thinking about a “bucket list.” Travel is on her itinerary, but so, too, is getting back to work with children in her school library. Cummings’ son is scheduled to graduate from John Hopkins University in December, her daughter has pushed up her impending wedding to October.

“I’m just trying to keep a positive attitude and stay hopeful that new things, new treatments will keep coming out,” she said.

As it turns out, the current medicines seem to be working. On the day after the triathlon, Cummings had a PET, or positron emission tomography, scan performed. The image showed no evidence of the cancer in her lungs or in her bones.

And that may be the miracle she was hoping for.

“Great news!” wrote Cummings in an email on Tuesday. “My PET scan didn’t show any hot spots, including the two bone tumors from May! My oncologist said he can’t guarantee they are not there at all, but they didn’t show up on the scan, so the medicine is working!”

“That’s the real victory,” said Tara Hill, executive director of Maine Cancer Foundation, in a statement referring to survivors in Sunday’s race, but applicable also to Cummings’ case. “Ten years ago, even five years ago, treatments for many of these women didn’t exist. It gives us a wonderful feeling to know the money we’re raising

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