Grace, courage and positive attitude helped FAU doc beat cancer, twice


Carlos Frías is a features writer and occasional columnist for The Palm Beach Post. He’s a father, runner, author and recovering sportswriter who remains a voting member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He joined the Post in 2004 from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he covered the Atlanta Braves. His memoir, “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba,” (Simon and Schuster, 2009) was based on the five-day Post series, “Mi Familia,” for which he was named the Cox Writer of the Year in 2006.

Madeline Gray received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art before moving to New York to work with Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. She completed her master’s in photojournalism at Ohio University in the spring of 2012. Whether traveling for work or on her own, she has documented daily life from Burma to Burkina Faso to the backwoods of Southeast Ohio.

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It wasn’t until the August sun fell on Steven Lewis that those around him knew something was terribly wrong.

He, his wife and his son had driven north from Boston to their weekend home in the Berkshire Mountains when they stopped for lunch at a roadside diner. It was a perfectly sunny day, so they sat outside. But before anyone took a bite, Karen and Ryan Lewis were startled to suddenly notice the color of their father’s skin.

“Why are you yellow?” they asked him.

A lifelong physiologist, Lewis, then 58, knew from their description it was jaundice before he ever saw his sallow eyes and skin.

But he never expected it to be cancer.

Over the next seven harrowing years, Lewis, a professor of physiology at Florida Atlantic University’s medical school, would defeat two surges of pancreatic cancer – some would say miraculously, since pancreatic cancer kills up to 86 percent of people who get it. He even wrote a book about it.

But talk of miracles sits ill at ease with Lewis, now 66, a scientist at heart and in practice.

Instead of asking, Why me? when he got cancer, he spent years later asking, Why me? when he survived it.

Mostly he credits the science. Rounds of chemotherapy. Laser-guided radiation. Life-saving and delicate Whipple surgery to remove the tumor on his pancreas that was pressing against the bile duct and causing his skin to turn yellow.

Yet, still …. Why me?

Staying strong for loved ones

His thoughts turned to his ordeal’s very beginning.

That August day in 2006, instead of heading toward their mountain retreat, Lewis and his family drove to the local hospital in town. The CT scan was inconclusive. Doctors sent him back to Boston for a more intense exam the next morning.

Waiting outside the CT room, Lewis ran the gamut of emotions. He worried about his wife, his children. Whatever was going on inside him, would it cost him his life?

“I almost lost it,” he said.

And then Karen took him by the shoulders. Looking back, that was the moment that answered the question he’d pondered: Why me?

“I literally shook him,” she remembers. “I said, ‘We have to get through this with grace, courage and a positive attitude.’ It came from somewhere deep down inside of me.”

Whatever the scan found, Steven Lewis knew he wasn’t in this alone.

“I knew if I went into despair, misery, the loved ones around me wouldn’t be able to handle it,” he said.

His mind stayed positive as the CT scan thundered in his ears, knowing whatever the diagnosis, he was ready to hear it.

An oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess, a Harvard teaching hospital where he would be treated since he taught at Boston University, wasted no time.

It was cancer. Pancreatic cancer.

The news couldn’t have been direr for Steven, in particular. His mother had died of pancreatic cancer when she was about the age he was. He had been just out of college when he watched the disease take her.

“People think of pancreatic cancer, they think death,” he said.

But that moment with Karen was not only still ringing in his thoughts, it had reprogrammed his attitude. Come what may, he would face it “with grace, courage and a positive attitude.”

He went online to the website, where he wrote blog posts to keep friends and family around the country apprised of his condition. He realized his positive attitude was contagious.

“You may not beat the cancer, but you can beat the emotional effects of the cancer,” he said. “The more you can stay calm and focus, the more you can make the right decisions.”

Lewis embraced the treatment for the next year in spite of the sobering odds and difficulties. When his hair fell out and he spent nauseated nights in the bathroom. When he had to leave his job. When his wife, a commercial and residential interior designer, became the sole breadwinner. Those close to him couldn’t believe his positive attitude.

“His attitude was amazing: I am going to get through this,” Karen Lewis said.

Three years after his first diagnosis, Steven Lewis was cancer free.

He found a teaching job at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in St. Martins. Karen remained in Boston, where she had a successful career, and commuted to the islands on weekends. They had been all over the world for Steven’s teaching jobs, so they took it as simply another adventure.

But a year later, another shock: The cancer had returned. Worse, it had spread to his liver. Survival rates dropped to just 5 percent.

Doctors told him to get his life in order.

“The doctor is basically telling you your life is over,” he said. “He was basically writing me off.”

‘I’m not going anywhere’

Lewis, however, wasn’t ready to concede. He was in otherwise great health, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound man who ate clean, never drank or smoked and exercised daily, as a physiologist knows he should.

A second opinion gave him a sliver of hope. A visiting surgical oncologist at Beth Israel had treated several patients who had to have pancreatic and liver cancer surgery.

“I told them, ‘I want treatment that’s bold, aggressive, decisive and rapid,’” he recalled.

He and Karen drove home in silence.

Before the surgery, Karen faltered. They had not made any burial plans in case the procedure failed. Did he want to be buried? Cremated? Should they buy a burial plot? But when she asked him, he looked at her with the same deep-piercing stare she had given him those many years ago.

“Karen,” he told her flatly, calmly, “I’m not going anywhere.”

That was four years ago.

This month, Lewis saw his first grandchild, Carter, born.

“I got away! Look at me!” he jokes now.

“My husband is a miracle,” Karen Lewis said. “Twice they told us the worst would happen and twice he defeated all the odds.”

Lewis’ family and friends looked at the sheer volume he had written on the Caring Bridge website – amazed at the attitude he’d managed to maintain throughout his ordeal – and they convinced him to put that positivity in the hands of others.

This month, he self-published his book, “The Ripple Effect: How a Positive Attitude and a Caring Community Helped Save My Life.”

He’s not given to new-age thinking. He knows the positive attitude didn’t cure him, but rather the expert doctors and advanced medicine.

“I’m a scientist. I can’t in good conscience say a positive attitude completely saved my life,” he said, “but it can’t hurt. And it definitely can help.”

That has been his only fulfilling answer to Why me?

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