For more than a month after giving birth to her son in 1971, Ellen Stovall suffered from chest pains, low-grade fevers and general malaise. Doctors suspected the 24-year-old Maryland woman had allergies or an imbalanced immune system arising from her pregnancy.
During a visit to her Pennsylvania hometown, Stovall decided to visit the family doctor. He suggested an X-ray that revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor in her chest, evidence of an advanced case of Hodgkin's disease.
Stovall's options were limited. Her recent pregnancy prevented her from participating in clinical trials on a then promising experimental chemotherapy called MOPP, a combination of several chemotherapy drugs. Doctors also lacked high-tech imaging equipment to gauge the contours of the tumor and had to rely on the crude, flat image provided by the X-ray.
Six weeks after giving birth -- and on the very day, Dec. 23, 1971, that President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the National Cancer Act -- Stovall underwent her first radiation treatment at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
“I took a vow that if I survived, I would devote my life to the cancer cause,” recalls Stovall, now 51. “I was young and thought cancer was an old person's disease. This was such a shock that I really lost my innocence and became an adult overnight.”
Stovall survived six months of grueling chemotherapy that shrank the tumor in her chest but left her sterile and suffering from post-radiation sickness and various heart and lung ailments. A year later, she had to undergo emergency surgery for a strangulated bowel that resulted from adhesions from the radiation. The cancer returned in 1984. Ironically, Stovall was treated with MOPP, which by that time had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for general use and become a standard treatment. Those treatments left her with peripheral neuritis, a disorder of the nervous system that results in little feeling in her hands and feet.
Stovall's unique perspective as a two-time survivor prompted her to help found the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, a network of individuals, organizations and research institutions that lobbies on behalf of patients suffering from all the various forms of cancer.
On Sept. 25 and 26, Stovall will take on an even more visible role as a cancer advocate, serving as president of The March, a series of gatherings in Washington and other cities designed to make cancer the nation's No. 1 public health concern. The idea for the gathering came during an appearance Stovall made on CNN's “Larry King Live” in April 1997 with fellow cancer survivors, including ABC newsman Sam Donaldson and financier Michael Milken.
Stovall's passion for advocacy began during her first cancer treatment, when she had trouble finding other cancer patients and survivors to speak with for support. She finally located four similarly young patients, all of whom had died from various ailments by the fifth anniversary of her diagnosis.
“I was very lucky to have a wonderful husband and family, but I was almost desperate to speak with another person with the disease, just to tell them how scared I was,” she recalls. “I think a movement of survivors fosters a whole generation of people with a consciousness of the disease that just wasn't there before.”
Stovall still faces challenges drawing together various factions in the cancer community. Some breast cancer advocates, traditionally the most vocal and successful in drawing attention to their cause, resent the presence of defrocked financier Milken, who has become a passionate advocate for prostate cancer research and screening since being diagnosed with the disease in 1993.
Milken says the cancer movement should use AIDS research spending as a successful model. In 1997, $72,000 per death was spent on HIV/AIDS research. Breast cancer research totaled $9,730 per death and prostate cancer $2,631 per death.
While reluctant to take sides, Stovall says she hopes marchers will let their lawmakers know that current funding levels for research are unacceptable.
“For every $10 collected in taxes, our government spends only one penny on cancer research,” she says. “People with AIDS and women with breast cancer have shown that their persistence, passion and perseverance are here to stay. We have to show there are 8 million cancer survivors, and we make a big voting block.”